Forms of Silence

Jan 20 / Witty Sandle
Prompted by the poem from Edgar Lee Masters,[1] called ‘Silence,’ I am invited to ponder the various forms of silence. Masters tackles the subject in five episodic verses with the opening stanza plunging us straight into the reality that all silences are not the same.
I have known the silence of the stars and of the sea,
And the silence of the city when it pauses,
And the silence of a man and a maid,
And the silence of the sick
When their eyes roam about the room.
And I ask: For the depths,
Of what use is language?
A beast of the field moans a few times
When death takes its young.
And we are voiceless in the presence of realities-
We cannot speak.

Sometimes, silence is pregnant with peaceful serenity and other times, it is vexing, leaving us a little uneasy. Silence can be comfortable, challenging, pleasant, necessary, confrontational, restful... the list continues. Silence is not just a time when nothing happens but rather, it is a time of fullness that is anything but void. Silences take on different complexions.

For example, there are times when solitude is an intentional soul-resting experience, such as when we take an early morning walk to greet the dawn and are surrounded by ethereal soundlessness. And then there are times when we actively hold space for others with our simple act of presence rather than with our words, like in our homes, our coffee shops, and our work-places.

Additionally, silence happens in formal spiritual direction relationships. In common with many of my fellow Spiritual Directors, silence is a part of my sessions with directees. My directees have told me again and again how they value our opening times of quiet. I used to begin our time with just a few minutes of silence followed by a short prayer. Now, I invite my directees to break the absence of words when they are ready and sometimes, they are not ready for a while.

It seems their hurried souls delight in basking in noiselessness.

This form of silence I am drawn to in my own spiritual practice of centering prayer. It’s a sacred time when the deafening clamor inside my head, reminds me of how much I need those twenty minutes, even if only a few seconds of them are quiet. The silence envelops me and my directees with the lightest of loving touches from the Divine.

Furthermore, Masters' poem led me to wonder whether there are times when silence is not peaceful and the answer is yes. The most uncomfortable silences are those that seem to be endless after a question is posed. I’m not talking about when someone is carefully taking their time formulating a response, nor the kind that I intentionally invite or am invited into.

I’m talking about the ones that are uncomfortable because nothing seems to be forthcoming. It seems like there is dead space. My directee may shuffle or glance at me expectantly and awkwardness fills the air. As the one being directed, I want to be rescued. As the director in those moments I want to jump in with words and save my directee but I am slowly learning to restrain my impulse. I am reminded of the words of Douglas Steere:

“In what listener are there not temptations early in the conversation to classify what is being said, to label and file it, and once in this frame, to give it only such attention as this frame calls for?” [2]

It is a growing edge for me as I recognize the variety of forms silence assumes. I am schooled by the Spirit as She will not be rushed, nor does She need me to interrupt Her good work.

With time the layers are incrementally being peeled back in silence, digging for a pearl of great price buried deep. And that, as I am learning, includes enough silence to move beyond discomfiture to discovery.

[1] Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950) was an American poet, biographer and lawyer.
[2] Douglas V. Steere, On Beginning from Within, On Listening to Another, (New York: Harper & Row Publishers,1964),192.

Witty Sandle
Witty works as the Career and Vocational counsellor at The King’s University in Edmonton, Alberta, combining her professional career development background with her spiritual direction skillset. She graduated from Portland Seminary in 2019 with a Masters in Spiritual Formation. Witty is deeply interested in questions of vocation and significance. She describes her own vocation as seeking to be an attentive presence, creating safe spaces where others can discover all they are called to be.