Wednesday, 19 July 2017

The Silence That Sings

I am on a silent retreat this week. That is to say, I am conducting a retreat for a religious community. So the experience is not quite the same as when you opt to go on a retreat for your own spiritual refreshment and renewal, or just because you need some peaceful time away. When you are giving addresses each day, and seeing retreatants who have asked for a conversation or want to make their confession, you are not there for yourself but for others. There is work to be done. 

Nevertheless, this week is a gift. Even though it's less than a month since I got back from leading an ordination retreat, it's still a welcome and a precious time. At the heart of the religious life is daily prayer, the eucharist together with the four offices of morning, midday, evening and night prayer. This community's beautifully reordered church, its architecture and furnishings noble but restrained, speak of spiritual values we should emulate. In its clear light, you feel that this church is a place of truth where we come to transact the business of God and of ourselves as we are before before him. There's no hiding from God here. You feel that you are seen, and known. That can be uncomfortable, painful even. But you also sense that this place of truth is also a place of humane companionship where pilgrims share bread and walk together before God. And a place of love where you are held in the embrace of a community that lives out the love of God himself.

Worshipping here has a stabilising, calming effect. The ancient plainchant of the psalms and canticles have a spiritual clarity that matches the quality of light. Words are spoken very slowly, softly and deliberately so as to reverence the sacred truths we are taking upon our lips. The daily prayers give the day focus, shape, direction and structure. Life feels intentional: there is a quiet prayerful purposefulness in the way the community goes about its business. There is something graceful about this life lived together that imbues ordinary things with meaning. No one is in a hurry. Walking purposefully becomes a religious act in itself. You begin to understand how in the religious life, space and time, activity and stillness become suffused with the spirituality of the conventual church and all that happens there: eucharist, prayer, scripture, psalmody, silence. (Because of the importance of the psalms in the community's daily prayer, I am offering reflections on the psalms of the day and trying to show how the whole of human life is contained within these marvellous texts. I'm also suggesting how they can help us to pray more authentically.  You can read my addresses here. I am adding them each day as I give them.)

It's the silence of places like these that we secular Christians tend to seek when we go on retreat. For some people this is more difficult than for others. As an introvert, I'm fortunate not to find this a problem myself. I've always valued silence and solitude, perhaps to a fault - who can say? In any case, retirement is necessarily a lot more silent than life used to be when time overflowed with activities, meetings, conversations and all the business that goes into an ordinary working day. That has taken some getting used to, though it is most welcome (for now).

But silence of the kind I'm finding here is more than just the absence of noise or music or conversation or digital stimuli. It's a rule of life, a discipline that's chosen, whether permanently or simply for a while, to help us quieten our spirits, practise stillness, become more aware, learn how to listen, discern God's presence in our midst. It's this that religious communities strive so hard to maintain and protect. At first it can seem odd to live in this way, especially at meal times when common courtesy and our innate sociability suggest that conversing amicably is the natural accompaniment to eating and drinking. So it is, most of the time. But silence is far from living in some private world of your own. On the contrary, it gives you the chance to meet and get to know others in surprising ways even if you never exchange so much as a single word outside the liturgy. When you pray with people and sit at table with them day by day, strangers become friends. Don't ask me how it happens. I'm just saying that it does. 

This kind of silence, inhabited by a community of prayer, can feel highly charged. A retreat can be an intense experience, especially when it takes place at a time of personal change or transition. My retreat before being ordained priest was like that. It was an important place to explore my hopes and expectations of ordained life, offer my vocation and my gratitude for it, try to be realistic about the failures and the flaws in my life of which I was acutely conscious at that momentous threshold. I was all alone (always the introvert!) on that retreat in a Benedictine house where the silence, and the holy warmth of the community, and the beauty and generosity of its liturgy made me so welcome. For me, then, it was a vital place of truth. 1976 was a blazingly hot summer. Perhaps that has helped the memory to glow. I sat in the gardens on the parched grass and read Jean-Pierre de Caussade on The Sacament of the Present Moment, and George Herbert's A Priest to the Temple together with many of his poems. But it's the quality of the silence that I most remember. I realise forty years later how thirsty I was for it.  I've been on many retreats since. But that experience stands out as life-giving in a special way.

The Victorian Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins has a poem about silence that inspired the title of one of Thomas Merton's best known books. It begins:

Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.

Silence can sing when we have ears (whorlèd or not) to hear. There is a music we become aware of when we elect for silence, attune the senses and start listening. You never know what kind of music it will be. But as the desert fathers used to say, you "go into your cell and your cell will teach you everything". It's a matter of being open to the Spirit of God, that's all. Like William Blake hearing angels singing in his garden, and seeing heaven in a grain of sand.


  1. Dear Michael, I have very much appreciated your blog on the silence that sings, and it rings true to my experience too. I would love to read your reflections on the Psalms, but the link is not working. Might it be possible to reinstate them?

  2. Thank you! Sorry about the failure of the link. I'll correct the link in the blog itself. The addresses are all at They are in separate posts so scroll back from 6 to 1 to read them in order. Michael

  3. Jonathan Mitchell1 August 2017 at 10:40

    Hello, Michael, like Henry I would love to read the addresses, but from here (I'm on hols in France) clicking on the link AND entering the url address for Michaelstalks tells me'Désolé, le blog que vous cherchez n'existe pas.' I hope this is not a consequence of Brexit!

  4. Well, #Brexit may have to answer for many things, but in this case the problem was that I altered the blog handle. I've now corrected the link in the blog text so I hope it works now: