The Big Silence: Whitterings, December 2010

The Monastery - Cover

Some of you may remember the 2005 BBC documentary ‘The Monastery’ where five ordinary people spend forty days in the Benedictine Monastery of Worth under the direction of Abbot Christopher Jamieson. It was fascinating seeing the way their lives changed in such a short period of time.

Abbot Jamison is back again with a new three part BBC documentary called ‘The Big Silence’. At first the five participants go on a limited retreat to learn some practices to help find silence in their everyday lives and then we follow them to see if they are able to get even a few minutes of daily silence. They all fail spectacularly. Next the Abbot sends them to St Beuno’s Jesuit centre in the isolation of the North Wales countryside for eight days of complete silence. What follows is extraordinary. After the initial onslaught of boredom and claustrophobia, the retreatants begin to experience the buried unresolved traumas of their lives. After sitting with the pain for a few days the dramatic silence permeated them and they became calm and, for many of them, relaxed for the first time in their lives. Yet it was far more than just relaxing. Once they connected with themselves each one had a profound spiritual experience that they felt changed the way they looked at the world. It was the most powerful experience they had ever had. All of the participants ended up making radical changes to their lives after having undergone the transformation fostered by the silence. All this happened in just eight days of silence.

I once had it explained to me that the psyche was like a jar of pond water. When it is being bounced around by constant movement the water in the jar remains muddy and you cannot see anything in it. However if you let it sit still for a few days all of the detritus will float to the surface, the silt settles to the bottom and the water becomes crystal clear. This is exactly what happened to the individuals in the programme.

The Abbot was working from a simple assumption when he set out the experiment:

“If you want to be deeply connected to yourself and deeply connected to God you must spend time in silence. When we enter regularly into silence we start to see with greater clarity and especially I come to know myself and become in touch with that part of myself which is the deepest – my soul. Many people’s lives are so full of business and so full of noise that they are in danger of that really important part of lives dying away. Silence is something that people today avoid or even fear. Contemporary life is lived at high speed and our busy culture prevents us being still so we don’t look deep inside ourselves. Life would be transformed for the better is we could embrace silence.”

One moment stood out for me. At the beginning of the eight day retreat a priest asks everyone to be silent and listen for just two minutes. At the end of the two minutes two of the participants, visibly moved, admit that it was the first time in their lives they had ever just listened to what was going on around them. One of them later spends a whole morning lying outside listening to the birds, the distant bleating of the sheep and the wind in the trees. She says in amazement “I can’t believe I’ve never stopped to listen to birds in the morning”.

It is funny how much we take for granted. I live in silence a great deal of the time and spend at least two weeks a year on silent retreat. I do not think much about it. The Christian mystical tradition has always valued silence, so much so we do not think of it as anything special. This program offered a startling insight into ministry in the modern world: one of the most powerful things that we have to offer the world is simply the enabling and facilitating of the opportunity to be silent. God does the rest. Could it really be this simple?