The Privilege of Silence

In 2003, I spent a day at a relatively new Carmelite monastery near Sligo, Ireland. Like many small religious foundations just getting off the ground, it was struggling, although the members of the community were filled with optimism and a sense of purpose about their shared mission. I plied one of the sisters with questions about the community, their rule of life, and their daily life. My curiosity extended to their diet. "Are you vegetarian?" I wondered, largely because of my own long-standing commitment to a meatless diet.

She laughed gently and said that they called themselves "fiscal vegetarians," noting that because they depended so much on the generosity of their neighbors, they could not afford to be self-righteous about their diet. Beggars can't be choosers, after all. "We are simply too poor to be strict vegetarians, so if a local farmer gives us a ham, we accept it gratefully and that's what we eat."

This was an explosive insight for me, who had always thought of vegetarianism as a smart economic choice on top of its other benefits. But as I thought about it, I realized that my vegetarianism really was a "lifestyle choice," grounded in my own privilege as an educated, middle class American, with the resources and knowledge that empowered me to choose to forego meat—without harming my health or even my taste buds! My "sacrificial" diet was not, at the end of the day, really so self-denying after all, for it depended on economic freedom that I, frankly, took for granted. It took meeting someone who really was "too poor to be vegetarian" to make me see this.

Fast forward to 2012. The other day I shared a cup of tea with a dear friend who is a pastoral assistant at our parish. She spends most of her time attending to refugees, men on death row, and the occasional homeless person who wanders in to the church—a living example of being a "doer" of the word and not just a "hearer" (James 1:22). As we sipped our cups of tea, we chatted about my family, my work, her ministry, and books we each thought the other would enjoy. And then she said something that electrified me almost as much as learning about "fiscal vegetarianism" did all those years ago.

"Silence is such a beautiful thing," she mused, "but you know, people who live on the street don't have access to it. The street is noisy. And prisons, too. There's no silence in the penitentiary; there's always someone yelling, or something else going on."

Again, I found myself staring at my own privilege. I run around telling people they need silence in their lives (and we do, we all do). Most of the folks I talk to are educated, reasonably affluent, engaged in church or religious life on some level, and overwhelmed by the noise in their life—but it's largely noise they choose, in terms of entertainment, or technology, or the continual onslaught of the media. Is contemplation like vegetarianism: just another lifestyle choice for those who are lucky enough to be able to select it?

It's a challenging question. I am convinced that silence can bring blessing to everyone, regardless of ethnicity, educational level, or religious affiliation. But for many of us, contemplative practice presupposes that we have resources at our disposal—for example, the leisure time to devote a half hour or more each day to silence, and the psycho-emotional maturity to engage in such a discipline in a healthy way.

I am increasingly convinced that contemplative spirituality must be embedded in some form of social ministry—of building relationships with persons who may not have the privileges we enjoy. It's not my place, of course, to say what such a ministry should look like: for some it may involve political activism, for others a form of charitable service, and still others might just be taking care of a seriously ill relative. But we need to be engaged, somehow, with at least one other person whose life choices are markedly different from our own. Otherwise, our silence can become a theater for spiritual narcissism, which sounds like hell to me.

Silence is like money. Having access to it is not evil, but we do run the risk of turning it into an idol. Those of us who enjoy access to silence have been given a gift, and so we do well carefully to consider how to use it. Shall we squander it, filling our lives with the useless noise of trivial amusements to shout down our hidden anxieties? Is meditation just a sophisticated tool for self-therapy, intended for nothing other than to bolster our sense of spiritual happiness? Or will it be for us a form of praise for God, praise that will inform—and transform—not only our minds and hearts, but our relationships as well?