Where would we be without silence ?

We have just returned from a hectic and enjoyable family wedding celebration in London, which took place during an interesting hiatus: just after the great collective affirmation of Queen Elizabeth the Second‘s Diamond Jubilee, and just before the Olympic Games, shortly to be held in the UK’s vibrant capital city. Although I loved our visit, the recluse in me is now craving that drug without which I cannot function effectively: silence.
As I sit quietly this evening, savouring solitude, silence, gazing out at a light summer’s evening, listening to the river’s flow, I reflect on the equinox and solstice points which have always brought major shifts to my life’s path, and realise that we are a mere ten days from Midsummer, the summer solstice.
From then, we have the slow diminishing of light and warmth, taking us to autumn and winter. We may not like aspects of this descent. But we need it. For where would we be if we never had the nourishment of darkness, and silence? We could not have the verdant fecundity of spring, or the warmth (in theory, at least, here in the cold wet West of Scotland!) and vibrancy of summer.

World culture abounds with myths telling of this archetypal Descent and Return: most familiar to us, the Greek myth of Persephone’s forced descent into Hades, abducted by the dark god Pluto, and the bargain he struck with her mother Demeter for her return to the upper world.

Then there is the ancient Sumerian myth telling of the descent of the goddess Inanna to visit her brutal sister Ereshkegal in the depths of the Underworld, and the drama of her escape and return.

The ‘dark night of the soul’ written about so eloquently in the Christian tradition by St John of the Cross, has inspired and guided many a spiritual seeker.

These and many other archetypal tales – which have provided us over millenia with guidance on how to face the deepest facets of human experience – are in essence journeys into silence, into the deep core that holds the ‘dazzling darkness’ wherein we may encounter that profound light and energy which charges up the spark of immortality we all possess.  It is to be found Somewhere. It is often hard to access. For some people, it is only through profound suffering that the door opens. Some people call that energy “God”.

The monks of  Worth Abbey have no hesitation in doing so.

They and their then Abbot Christopher Jamison came to national attention in the UK a couple of years ago via a BBC programme “The Monastery”, in which they

“……invited five participants to live alongside the monastic community and discover for themselves the wisdom of St Benedict……”

This series of programmes attracted a great deal of attention. It touched a deep chord amongst many people in our noisy, 24/7 society where silence and peace are hard to find. Clearly, there is a great deal of spiritual hunger in our materially over-fed culture……Worth Abbey was inundated with requests for retreats and for spiritual direction following the screening of those programmes.

Again presented by Christopher Jamison, in the follow on programme ‘The Big Silence’, five new participants  were “……invited to take the wisdom of silence found in the monastery……” and carry it back into their everyday lives.

Five volunteers went on this journey into silence, led by Father Christopher Jamison. His starting point is simple: “Many of the world’s religions believe there is one simple path that leads us towards God. It’s called silence.”

"The Big Silence" Participants
“The Big Silence” Participants


Father Jamison is convinced that everyone – atheist, agnostic, lapsed, uncertain, seeking – can benefit from sustained, regular periods of silence. “When we enter into periods of silence, we start to see things with greater clarity. We come to know ourselves, and come in touch with that deepest part of ourselves. That is our soul.”

I watched the three BBC programmes following the difficult, absorbing and moving experiences of the five participants, all of whose lives were challenged and changed by being in silence. Watching this process, and the careful way they were guided through by Abbot Jamison, the monks and the spiritual directors assigned to each participant, was a profound experience for me at the time.

Tonight, I’ve decided that my personal Midsummer retreat this year will involve revisiting those programmes and watching them again. Join me, and let me know what you think!

Light, darkness, silence....
Light, darkness, silence….

The whole BBC series can be found on YouTube at “The Big Silence”.


UPDATE from Worth Abbey, June 2012


….weekend retreats for those who have seen the TV series and who would like to experience something of monastic silence.


800 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2012

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