In spiritual direction, I always begin with a time of silence and centering. Often those engaging with me in spiritual direction want another period of silence at the conclusion of our hour together. As we unravel stories and complex, often perplexing personal narratives, there are moments when we go silent. Sometimes, after a rich and profound silence, a directee will say: "I really needed that." And I usually concur that I needed that silence also.
I admit it: This is my (monastic?) bias. In silence, we begin moving towards quieting all of the inner voices that compete for our attention and that distract us from essentials.
Never hope to find a silent zone in an American church (unless, of course, you are a Quaker). My home parish is chatty, chatty, chatty. People mean well. They are happy to see each other. But all of the chatter leaves God's voice in the wings. For awhile, I went to the church a little early so that, in silence, I could focus and prepare myself for the service. But, then, the choir decided to start rehearsing and, so, au revoir silence!
In monastic practice, after late evening prayers (compline) we observe the Great Silence. This is a deep time. I feel as though it prepares us not only to hear God's voice but readies us for the ultimate silence we will all face sooner or later: death. Even if we are all praising the Lord in heaven, I imagine that the mode of that praise will not be words and chatter.
So, I have never really considered a down side to silence . . . that is, until I read Days in the History of Silence by celebrated Norwegian author Merethe Lindstrom. This wonderful and acclaimed (in Norway but not quite yet in the USA) novel spins the story of an aging couple--they seem to be in their seventies, kids grown, in retirement, cultured. Suddenly and without any apparent reason, Simon, goes silent. He smiles. He makes eye contact. But he has just stopped talking. Period.
His wife tries to sort out what is going on while keeping her part of the better or worse deal that her marriage now represents. For her it is worse. It turns out that Simon is a holocaust survivor who has never discussed this with his daughters. It is revealed that the long suffering wife, gave away her baby boy because she had no feeling for him. But she has never told anyone except Simon. There is a Latvian cleaning woman who the couple suddenly releases--and this causes tensions with their daughters who are fond of the cleaner. The couple refuse to share with the adult daughters the reason for the dismissal. As the novel progresses, it seems that one secret by one family member is lodged inside another secret of another family member. Even the cleaning woman guards a silence, until one day she speaks words that electrify and hurt.
Maybe this is a silence of shame or of confusion about things that happened long ago. Many families experience this in some way. But you wonder if Simon's silence is not intentional and meant to hurt or punish. All persons who have been on the receiving end of "the silent treatment" by someone near to them, know how maddening this can be.
I am not going to leak the ending of this novel. It wouldn't be fair to readers or to the author. But I think that this is a wonderful, elegant, sparsely constructed novel which, with an intense economy of words, sucks you into the silence or the many nested silences. Good silence, bad silence? You decide at the end.
For myself, my bias regarding silence is just a little shaken now. Before I open that can of silence pictured above in a spiritual direction session, I am going to try to be sensitive to the possibility that the person sitting across from me might have been hurt or damaged by a bad silence.