Many years ago I did a weeklong retreat at the Taize Community in southern France. Known for its captivating chants, the ecumenical monastic compound attracts thousands of people each week from all over the world. The community hosts three services a day, mostly featuring their soul-connecting chants, sung in almost as many languages as the nationalities that are represented. In each service, there is a full ten minutes of silence. Thousands of people, including squirming babies and unruly kids, are silent.
After three days of participating in the rhythm of Taize, I had an insight: silence is the world’s common language. The silence brought the entire gathering into a solidarity of practice. And into a connection with one another. The silence generated community — and an understanding and appreciation of one another that could not be explained. And could easily be broken.
I have been reminded of that insight this week as I backpack across the Highlands of Scotland with my friend and college classmate David Brown. This is his fifth crossing, and my first. What I notice, besides my aching feet, is the stark beauty of all these bare mountains (there are 280 over 3,000 feet in the Scottish Highlands). And what I drink in is the silence. There is virtually no human population in the many glens that form this landscape, and except for the occasional bleating of the ever present sheep and the whoosh of the wind, there is silence. The silence invites me to move past my usually engaged ego into the mysteries of the soul.
Most of us live in a world that is filled with noise, the volume of which has ramped up these last few years with increasing polarization. I once read that people in America receive, on average, a thousand messages a day — from some electronic device, telling us that our bodies need to be a different shape, that our hair should be a different color, that we should buy this car or that medication; that we should vote for this person, and by no means vote for another person. These messages may not have audio, but it is still noise. And we can say that we don’t pay attention, but at some deep level we do. They engage our egos — our wants and our desires, our fears and our loathings.
I remember leading a group of people who were intensely divided over an issue that was, for them, of immediate significant importance. The arguments on both sides became more fierce and biting, and worried that name-calling was the next step someone would take, I suggested that the group spend some time in silence. They hesitantly agreed.
The silence didn’t solve the issue, nor resolve it. But it did lower the temperature, and enabled people to get beyond their ego-driven arguments to their shared humanity. And reminded those in the group that they had a human connection to one another.
Silence has a unique language that we would do well to practice.