Living Alone

Chapter 4

The Uses of Silence

Silence is spoken of proverbially as golden, yet only a few people would choose to possess it for more than a few moments. Silence is the way of communication of the soul with God; it is the wordless union that seals true fellowship. What is left unsaid in the heart is often much more authentic than what is communicated in words. Silence, however, is painful, even demonic, if it ceases to be a mode of communication. It then becomes an impenetrable prison that shuts out living concern from the one who lies in its depths. It is evident therefore that not all silence is beneficent, and that some silences are malign in their psychic content. It is from the pain of such negative silences that most of us flinch, for a long-continued silence of this type can make living alone, even for a brief period, a fearsome experience. Indeed, the prospect of several days' imposed silence is enough to deter most of us from making a retreat. In this respect men are generally more afraid than are women. As we have already noted, men tend to gravitate further away from their centre than do women. They are polarized between the seductive realms of material achievement and intellectual attainment and to have to quit these havens of inner safety for even a few days in order to explore deeper planes of reality is a threatening prospect. In my experience, however, once a person has been properly conducted into the silence of a retreat he is loath to return to the shallow, jarring conviviality of the outer world, for he has glimpsed something of his eternal home in the depth of eternity. Again, the success of this enterprise depends on whether the retreatant has discovered and explored the secret place within, and the responsibility for this depends not only on his own willingness to be led by the Holy Spirit but also on the openness of all those sharing the retreat with him. The catalyst is the conductor, who has to leave self behind and be the instrument of the Spirit of God. This is something that is learned from the experience of life rather than acquired from another person's teaching. And the seal of all authentic retreat conductors is the many days they have been obliged to live alone, like Jesus, in the wilderness and be tested by the devil, who reveals himself as the tempter of good things provided one bows down and worships him. This, in effect, means that one should quit the darkness of silence and seek the idols of the world: wealth, power and the esteem of one's fellows. But the one who persists in the darkness of silence will see the face of God that shines with an eternal, uncreated light of such intensity that all other light is obliterated by its radiance.

I suspect that before we can know the silence of eternity, we have to experience the various unpleasant modalities of silence to which I have already alluded. In the same way we can seldom know God as light until we have penetrated the darkness that seems to surround him. This darkness is, in effect, a psychic emanation of perverted free will, and it arises from the creatures of God who have abused and distorted the creation according to their selfishness and ignorance. The pain of silence is, in one way or another, due to the fear that surrounds it. The basic fear is one of annihilation: if we cannot communicate with other people because we are entirely alone, we fear we will become increasingly forgotten until we cease to register in the minds of anyone. We will then disappear from the light of the living and enter the anonymous darkness of oblivion. This is an ever-present threat that lies on the horizon of a life spent alone. We were never meant to be alone in that terrible dereliction; we were meant to live in fellowship and life, not in cold isolation. It is this fear of gradually disappearing from the light of human concern that makes living alone a forbidding prospect. The silence that envelops one brings with it apathy, exclusion and gradual attrition that ends in death and disintegration.

Not all the fear of silence is due simply to a gradual loss of one's place among the living members of one's society. To it are added the more menacing elements of ostracism and disapproval. The silence that follows society's rejection of an erring member is a fearsome ordeal to undergo. It does not only mean that one is now left completely on one's own. This would be unpleasant enough, but to this enforced seclusion there is added the threat of punishment and destruction. This has been the sequence of events in the lives of the victims of the prison camps in various totalitarian regimes in our own century: first one is ignored as if one did not exist, and then the ruthless destructive power of hatred seeks to annihilate the person completely. In the more circumscribed cruelty of local groups a vicious type of ostracism serves to isolate the unfortunate victim of discrimination, so that few people will dare to have anything to do with him. The terrible aspect of this silence is that it is devoid of any communication - one is completely alone, almost as if the Spirit of God himself is withheld from the one who gropes in absolute isolation.

To be a forgotten person is a terrible thought; it is one of the fears that may beset anyone confronting death. To exist in a vacuum devoid of any human contact is as near an experience of hell as we can bear to contemplate. It is far more terrible in its implications than the traditional picture of hell as a place of physical and mental torture. These tortures, however dreadful they may be, have at least a positive content in that the person's identity is still acknowledged. In the void of oblivion he enters into non-existence, at least in the minds of his fellows, while he remains painfully aware of his continued suffering. The malign aspect of silence thus can be seen as that which denies the person's sense of identity and significance until he enters the darkness of despair, that perverted "cloud of unknowing" which does not lead to God but to self-abandonment in chaos and destruction.

Well does the Psalmist advise us not to put our trust even in princes. All unredeemed human beings have their price, and then they will betray us. This hard approach to the superficiality of human solidarity has its one saving clause; not all human beings are unredeemed. The ones who have been redeemed are those who have emerged transformed from the pit of suffering so that they function no longer from the consciousness of the superficially placed ego, but from the inner centre of the soul. The ego makes demands for itself, and soon dissociates itself from all relationships that appear to be without profit for itself. The broken, the derelict, and those who are isolated from the world soon cease to matter in the eyes of the worldly-wise, and the ego dismisses them from its concern. The soul, on the other hand, is in constant communion with all life through the shared spirit within it. It cannot remain impervious to the dereliction and suffering of any creature, as it is involved in all life. Only as we function from the depth of the inner place of the soul can we know the redemption of the world effected by the ministry of Jesus. Before this change occurs in our own consciousness the redemption wrought by Christ remains a purely intellectual concept, a fiction of theological argument. It has little weight or content in the course of our lives. St John speaks truly when he says that we know we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers (1 John 3.14). This love is, in effect, an awakening of the soul to the love of God, which then radiates to all life as caring and self-giving. Furthermore, it is universal in its intensity; it flows out to those far off as greatly as to those close at hand, and it does not distinguish enemy from friend. Just as God pours down his blessings on the just and the unjust alike, so does the love of the redeemed person flow out as an unquenchable stream on all who will receive it.

We have, if we are to become fully developed people, to traverse the dark silence of fear that presages destruction and annihilation before we can know the other side of that silence which is the eternal presence of God. What we must be prepared to surrender even to total annihilation is our sense of self-importance. We have to be divested of the illusion of all identification with success and the good things of life. In other words, the ego has to be brought to the altar for sacrifice in exactly the same way as Abram brought his beloved son Isaac to the altar to be given as an offering to God. It is the ego that fears its destruction, and until that fear is finally confronted in clear consciousness and unrestrained self-offering, there can be no freedom from death and annihilation. We know that, when Abram was on the point of slaying his son, God intervened and saved the precious offspring of the great patriarch. Only then was his name changed to Abraham, which means, on a higher level of reality, that his nature was changed so that the life of immortality was brought more clearly within his grasp. By being prepared to sacrifice his son to God, Abraham had touched a relationship with Isaac that transcended even the death of the body, and when Isaac was restored, his communion with his father was established to the point at which death itself was merely an incident in immortal life.

It is thus also with the ego. In itself it is a precious aspect of the personality, for it is our means of self-manifestation in the world. Without it we would be insubstantial ghosts rather than living people. But it has a limited currency in its own right; only when it serves as an instrument of the deeper nature is it transformed from a petulant tyrant that demands everything for itself to a gracious servant of the whole person, whose joy consists in participating in the fullness of the life of God as one of many brothers, of giving ceaselessly of itself for the benefit of the whole creation. If one seeks oneself and one's life, one loses it, but when one is prepared to give up everything for God, one knows him and the life that is real. That which was given up is returned renewed and healed; it is redeemed from its end in death to the glory of eternal creation. This is the mystery of eternal life; death is the agent of transformation. When we enter the portals of death, we at last understand that they are also the gates of eternity. The person who knows this is indeed redeemed, for God speaks directly through him, inasmuch as the life he lives is the life Christ lives in him, and all he has is now transformed into Christ (Gal. 2.19).

We can in fact put our trust in no one except God; to know him is the meaning as well as the end of all life. He is not merely a refuge from the storms of life, or a support against intolerable loneliness. He is the basis of everything, the supreme reality, the full relationship by which we know ourselves and other people. The living silence is the way of moving beyond the darkness of the mind's fear of annihilation to the fullness of God's eternal presence.

The darkness of silence has to be penetrated before its final sequence, the passage of the soul to God, is traversed. The true "cloud of unknowing" is the mystic's negative way to divine knowledge. As one enters this cloud, so all images are divested from one. One property alone remains, the power of love. We are not even aware of any love in the dark silence of self-abandonment; all we know is that we must persist, persevere and continue the journey onwards, which is also the journey inwards towards the soul. It is the love of God that moves us in dark faith onwards towards the unknown goal which is, paradoxically, also the supreme knowledge within us. But what is dimly visible has to be explored, acknowledged and claimed for oneself and for the world. In one of the Parables of the Kingdom, Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to treasure lying buried in a field. When it is found, it has to be put on one side again until the person has acquired sufficient resources to purchase the entire field (Matt. 13.44). The treasure cannot be claimed without the field in which it lies buried.

The first use of silence is therefore to explore the depths of our own personality, to come to terms with the fears and inhibitions that lie deeply placed in the unconscious part of the mind. Inasmuch as the microcosm of the mind of each individual mirrors the macrocosm of the mind of mankind, so the journey inwards is also a participation in the pain, dread, hopes and despair of all people. When Jesus underwent the supreme test of the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and the subsequent crucifixion, there was no aspect of human dread and dereliction, pain and despair, that he did not touch. It is in this way that he is with all of us in our own agony even though he did not experience the actual modes of torture or distress that came into common use long after his own life had ended. The history of each person may be unique, but the emotional turmoil that underlies it is shared in common by all his fellows. The person who lives alone in silence will have a sharp light of clarity shed on the most intimate and excruciating details of his past life. What starts by being almost unbearable soon assumes the quality of an agent of cleansing, and suddenly one realizes that one is free. The things of the past with their intense emotional charge have at last been seen in their proper perspective, and one has transcended the pain and the indignation that they had previously evinced. There is no authentic spirituality that has not come to terms with the most harrowing details of the world's past in one's own psyche - remembering that the microcosm is a mirror of the macrocosm - and has learnt to accept all in the spirit of love.

When the exploration of the depths of the personality can be tolerated, the silence ceases to be menacing. It becomes refreshing and comforting, so much so that the circumstances that caused one to live alone are now seen to be no small blessing. One can at last learn how to bequeath the blessing of peace to other people. This is most important, for silence enjoyed alone can lead to a selfish disregard for other people. If, however, one has traversed the deep places of the soul, one undergoes an inner baptism leading to a transformation of the personality. This inner baptism is a journey from crucifixion to resurrection, and its fruit is a changed person. The essential quality of this change is that the person is now attuned to whatever circumstance assails him. In other words, he is in the closest union with whatever befalls him or with whomsoever he may come into relationship. The barrier of the ego with its suspicion, demands and arrogance is now put down and a living fellowship is established with each person in the vicinity or with the situation at hand. Love flows spontaneously; it is not contrived or forced, but issues forth from the one to the other. Since all love comes from God, this means that one is completely open to God whose love shines on all creation like the rays of the sun. But whereas most of us have clouds of fear and discontent around us that separate us from the love of God, the person who is free can absorb that love and reflect it on to the whole world. This is a great gift of silence borne in courage and persistence; the soul becomes purified, even as the soul of Mary was radiantly innocent to bear the full impress of the Holy Spirit at the time of the conception of her son Jesus.

The second use of silence is to be able to listen to what other people are actually saying to us. In what passes so often for conversation, the speaker is directing a monologue at his audience, and is interested only in his own ideas and speculations. His audience is a captive one whose function is simply to support him, or on whom he can direct his thoughts in order to see whether or not these are favourably received. The loquacious person is often in dialogue with himself - the ego addressing itself - and the audience is hardly given recognition as a being in its own right. When we are silent within we can, perhaps for the first time, begin to perceive the message of another person and listen to him with attention and concern. This message is something more than a barrage of words; it is also his inner disposition and the psychic emanation that arises from it. To read between the lines of another person's thoughts is often as important as concentrating on the articulated word. This is what the deeper listening that comes in silence effects; it is a relationship between people that passes beyond the temptations of judgement, analysis and other worldly wisdom and enters into a union of soul consciousness in which the many are one. The bond of union of souls in the silence of receptivity is the Holy Spirit whose action is no longer distorted by the clamour and the desire for attention of the ego and the reasoning mind. In the tranquillity of a mind freed from the turmoil of personal desire, the message of the cosmos rings in purity and exact formulation. To listen is to be able to receive without judgement, fear or any other kind of inner response the message from beyond oneself. It may come from the heart of another human being, or from the corporate society around one, or it may proceed from the world of the spirit far beyond our mortal comprehension. To listen is the way to all wisdom: the fear of the Lord is indeed the beginning of wisdom and to turn from evil is understanding (Job 28.28). In the watchword of the Jewish faith it is constantly repeated, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord" (Deut. 6.4). We cannot hear until we listen; we can certainly hear with the ear whether we wish to or not, but to hear with the mind means taking in the message, receiving it and listening to what it tells us. We know God by receiving him into the soul, and we know other people by accepting them in the everlasting arms of God within ourselves. This is the precious gift of silence.

When we are sufficiently humble of self-regard to take another person, with all his trouble and affliction, into our own being, then we can begin to minister healing to that person. The Holy Spirit, who is the counsellor and the bringer of all truth, enters into the dialogue. He fills us, in ourselves destitute of all understanding, with the eternal wisdom of God, and some of this wisdom can now fall from even the most unlearned lips to lighten the burden of an afflicted brother. Real wisdom is a compound of the knowledge of God working through the chastened soul of a person who has been through the testing - ground of silence long endured and a mind that has learnt keenly in the school of life.

The third use of silence is to listen to what our lives are telling us about ourselves, to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit leading us into the truth of our condition. As we become quiet, so we can see spread before our understanding the pattern of our past life and the tendencies of behaviour that lie ahead of us. We begin to see how responsible we ourselves have been for the disappointments and failures of the past, and how the weaknesses of character are the truly subversive agent in our lives. We believe that misfortune has led us from one evil circumstance to another, from one unsatisfactory personal relationship to something equally unpleasant. In the silence of inner regard we are shown how culpable we ourselves have been for our difficulties and disasters, what part we have played in the apparently relentlessly inevitable course of our life. A period of recollection is a good discipline of silence at the closing of each day shortly before we retire to a night's sleep. It brings vividly into focus the ambivalence of our attitudes towards other people, how insensitive we are to the suffering of those around us - indeed the part we have played, albeit unwittingly, in adding to another's pain - and how selfish we are in our relationships with those around us. In a retreat the Holy Spirit comes to us in the silence of spiritual effacement and shows us, quite directly, the poverty of the spiritual currency on which we trade. This comes to us in shafts of painful memory and also in a more disguised form as the symbols of a dream. What starts as a painful period of self-examination proceeds with the fascinating unravelling of an inner life story to an experience of unwonted freedom. The promise of Jesus, "You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8.32), is fulfilled in the life of silence. The truth is that all things, no matter how adverse they may appear to our naked gaze, have a potential to good for those who love God, the source of our being, as St Paul saw so clearly (Rom. 8.28).

The end of silence is to rest in God, in whom alone is one's sustenance and life. To be still and know that God is in command of the world (Ps. 46.10), that indeed he is the only reality, and that he is close to us when we are close to ourselves in the silence of self-giving to the world, is the greatest knowledge we can have. This silence is the precursor of prayer, the dialogue between the human soul and God. We are told to pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5.18), which means that our attention must always be focused on God no matter what we are doing. If we remember him at all times, no matter where we are or what work we are engaged in, our life will be dedicated to his service and our works will be infused with his spirit. Silence is much more than simply a condition in which there is no speech or noise of any kind. This is the negative aspect of silence. But silence in its greater, more positive dimension, is a condition of attachment of the person to God. One can be silent in the heart of a shattering discourse if one remembers God transcending all distinctions and entering the heart of all that is real. Indeed those intense conversations that proceed to a discovery of the true person lying concealed behind the façade that one puts up against the world are conducted in complete inner silence. The heart of the sacrament of the present moment is the silence in which it is consecrated. Silence is the action of giving up oneself to God, whether in the practice of prayer or in serving one's brother in the world. When one has lost concern for oneself, when one has transcended the barrier that lies between the subject and the object of any encounter, one has entered the silence of eternity. In this silence is the power for any undertaking, because the Holy Spirit inspires the person with wisdom and vision.

The benefits of silence are especially available to the person who lives alone, for he has no one around him to dissipate the stillness. This does not mean that silence should separate one from one's fellows in a vacuum of selfish indulgence. It means that living alone provides an invaluable opportunity for coming to the one thing needful for salvation, the presence of God in the moment in hand. And when we know that presence, we are enabled to take it out with us into the world. The silence of eternity, far from excluding us from the life of the world, is the way in which we can come in full command of our gifts to the world. Silence in God brings all life to us. It is the only way in which loneliness is effectively banished, for it brings us as whole people to the world. We no longer need the world for support; instead we serve the world as a support through God who works his way in us. It therefore follows that the greatest use of silence is prayer for the whole world, the precious practice of intercession.

Chapter 5