My wife spent this past weekend on a silent retreat—her first. Despite what it sounds like, such retreats are not entirely silent, of course. There is spiritual direction, a variety of instruction, a book-on-CD playing during meals, and daily Mass. But you’re not expected to talk, to spend time networking, making or renewing friendships, or trying to seem interesting. It’s like the opposite of going to the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (and probably no shortage of Christian conferences, either). As a result, it can be quite disorienting at first. It’s as if you’re in a foreign place, because—in a very real way—you are. I went on one last June, with some hesitation and second thoughts, only to find it the finest few days I’d spent in a very long time.
Why is that? What is it about silence that intellectually attracts us, but in reality repulses us?
The 17th-century French mathematician, philosopher, and well-rounded intellectual Blaise Pascal—I think—observed that our miseries come from our inability to sit quietly alone in a room (I’ve misplaced my copy of the Pensées, so I can’t confirm this.) While that may be a stretch, Pascal was certainly onto something. The impulse to mitigate silence is not new. There are very few of us in this wired Western world who can truly relish unmolested quietness for more than, say, a few minutes. I work in a relatively-quiet office for hours a day, but it’s not the same. I’m working, plugged in, online, and available (but selectively responsive). Even when I’m alone at home, my tendency is to pull up a favorite Pandora station.
So while we are prone to fantasize about stealing a half-hour to just sit, or meditate, or pray—and complain about our inability to find or be afforded those minutes by a spouse or away from children—I suspect it’s often a fantasy, or a false front. We say that silence is golden, but live as if it’s deafening [Read more…]