The Big Silence

For two days in a row now, the BBC have inspired, reassured and encouraged me on my own quest by showing other people on similar – strikingly similar – journeys.  The example discussed in yesterday’s post, Catherine Sackville-West, was from the somewhat unlikely source of Wonderland’s ‘High Society Brides’ documentary.  Tonight’s source was a rather more obvious one: The Big Silence, a series in which a Benedectine monk accompanies five people, all with busy, twenty-first century lives, on journeys into silence.  The program – the first in the series – aired on Friday.  A friend recommended it to me, knowing that my return to Quakerism – the way of life I’d grown up surrounded by – was inextricably linked with my own foray into silence after a hugely noisy period in my life.

I didn’t agree with the all the points made in the program; in particular, I struggled to relate to the ‘certainty’ about God expressed by the monks.  It seemed funny that these monks – with a theological standpoint so, so very different from my own – could express experiences that I have undergone.  I would recommend this program to anyone who has ever thought ‘What is the point?’  or ‘What is life all about?’, regardless of their views on religion and notions of ‘god’.  I found enormous parallels between their nascent journeys into silence and my own quest.  To give one example, a woman named Helen – who described herself as a ‘non-believer’, or someone believing in herself rather than ‘God’ – talked about being moved by going into the monk’s chapel and she wasn’t sure why; she just knew that it had affected her.  I so understand how she felt: for a number of years, I couldn’t go into a Quaker meeting house because I couldn’t handle the space.  This seemed a particularly strange reaction as Quaker meeting houses are not consecrated or considered sacrosanct in anyway; as their name indicates, they are ‘meeting houses’, not churches or chapels.  It wasn’t a sense of ‘holiness’ that intimdated me or made me feel a failure.  My aversion came from a desire to avoid confronting the truth: I didn’t want to face the huge disjuncture between the reality of my life and the values that I held dearest to me.  The gap between who I seemed to be and who I knew myself to be on the inside had grown so wide, so wide that I was in real danger of losing touch with the inner self altogether – and probably did for many years.  In the silence, there is no escape, no way to avoid the uncomfortable truth. 

In the silence, you confront the good and the bad; the joys and the fears.  But through this, you learn to access yourself on the inside – stripped bare.  There is nowhere to hide, no facade, no mask.  You feel exposed; vulnerable.  For me, and I believe that I’m not alone, facing the silence (and learning to relish it, love it, thrive on it) leads to a life lived more abundantly – but the path is not necessarily easy or even easier.  The road is hard, but the rewards are great.  Too much is at stake to not face that challenge: one’s true sense of self, one’s life.  I see others around me – my friend who recommended the program, other people at my local Quaker meeting – who are also on a similar journey, but to see it writ large on a television screen (well, my 10" inch laptop screen) was surprisingly comforting.  I wait with interest to see how they get in on in the next episode.  In the meantime, I’ll try to keep all five of the participants in my thoughts during my own daily periods of silence.

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