The Other Side of Silence

Road to Emmaus covera chapter from The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life

by Jim Forest

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.
— George Eliot, Middlemarch

There are times when good words are to be left unsaid out of esteem for silence.
— St. Benedict, The Holy Rule

We cannot find God in noise or agitation. Nature: trees, flowers, and grass grow in silence. The stars, the moon, and the sun move in silence.
— Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Voices. Voices. Listen, my heart, as only
saints have listened: until the gigantic call lifted them
off the ground; yet they kept on, impossibly,
kneeling and didn’t notice at all:
so complete was their listening. Not that you could endure
God’s voice — far from it. But listen to the voice of the wind
and the ceaseless message that forms itself out of silence.
— Rainer Maria Rilke, “Duino Elegies”

One of the hallmarks of pilgrimage is an attitude of silence and attentive listening, a state of being for which few of us are well equipped. We have been shaped by a society in which noise is normal and its absence disorienting.

If our medieval ancestors were to visit us, perhaps the biggest single shock that the world of the third millennium would pose for them would be the unrelenting noise that most of us endure. The noise of traffic. The noise of sirens. The noise of jet planes overhead. The noise of television and radio. The noise of machinery. The noise of over-loud conversation. The canned music pumped out of loudspeakers in so many stores. The thin ghostly sounds emitted by earphones. The noises made by mobile phones as they announce incoming calls, followed by the noise of one-way conversations.

We live in a world of noise in which millions of people have not only acclimated themselves to noise but become sound addicts. Many of us depend on continuous noise. For almost any urban person, silence is a stunning experience. For many, it’s frightening. We all know people who keep a radio, television, or music player on continuously. I recall a friend in New York who lost his job as a radio announcer on a popular station for broadcasting ten seconds of silence. His station manager said that, more than anything else, their audience depended on the station to provide constant sound. Even one second of silence meant listener distress and an urgent search for sound on another station.

Part of the asceticism of being a pilgrim is to search out places that encourage inner quietness and contemplative listening: churches, concerts, plays, museums, woods and parks, remote places, wilderness areas, monasteries, beaches and deserts.

Silence is not silent. It is more than the absence of noise. If you manage to escape the cacophony of urban life, you quickly discover that nature isn’t silent. There is a torrent of sound even at midnight on the driest, most remote desert: breezes scraping the sand, the tireless conversation of insects, the tidal sound of one’s own breathing, the drumming of one’s heart, the roar of being. What a pilgrim’s walk can provide is the silence that comes from doing without sound-generating devices, being attentive rather than speaking, praying rather than engaging in chatter. So long as our heart keeps beating, we will never hear absolute silence, but by avoiding distractions and listening to what remains, we discover that the door to silence is everywhere, even in Times Square and Piccadilly Circus. To listen is always an act of being silent.

Yet finding places of relative silence can help a pilgrim discover inner silence. As the poet Bob Lax, who in his later years made his home on the quiet Greek island of Patmos, once put it in a letter to a friend:

The thing to do with nature … is to listen to it, and watch it, and look deep into its eyes in a sense, as though you were listening to and watching a friend, not just hearing the words or even just watching the gestures but trying to guess, or get a sense, or share the spirit underneath it, trying to listen (if this isn’t too fancy) to the silence under the sound and trying to get an idea (not starting with any preconceived formulation) of what kind of silence it is.[i]

There are as many kinds of silence as there are varieties of ice. Some forms of silence are of God’s own making. Others are hostile to the spiritual life. Starting at the icy end of the spectrum, here’s my list:

Deadly silence: This is the almost murderous silence of people who refuse to speak to a spouse, a parent, a child or a neighbor: silence used as a weapon, silence meant to annihilate. One often witnesses it in teenagers in that period when nearly everything a parent says or does inspires homicidal glares. Not everyone outgrows it. Many a marriage has died of deadly silences.

Guilty silence: In which our failure to speak makes us silent collaborators in injustice or cruelty.

Ominous silence: This is the intimidating, belittling silence of a teacher or boss waiting for you to respond to a question they know you cannot — or dare not — answer.

Proud silence: This is the malignant silence of the person who regards himself as too important to speak to lesser mortals, at the same time communicating the message that the other, being so insignificant, had best shut up.

Anxious silence: This is the silence of fear, the silence of the paralyzed tongue. You are in the presence of someone with power over you and find yourself made dumb. Or you are face-to-face with someone famous and find your tongue has turned to wood.

Awkward silence: This is the strained, embarrassed silence of being with strangers and not having a clue what to say.

Graveyard silence: A silence in which nothing makes as much noise as your own heart beat. There is also the silence of the tomb, where every conversation has been interrupted by terror, calamity, or death.

Meek silence: This is the silence of respect, modesty and humility. It’s not bad advice to keep silent unless what you have to say is more interesting than silence.

Dumbfounded silence: This is the silence of awe — an awareness of the presence of God, of fathomless mystery, of the unspeakably beautiful.

Consoling silence: Faced with suffering or bereavement, words seem both inadequate and profane. What one has to say is best said with the eyes, tears, and mute gestures.

Enamored silence: The silence of love. No words seem equal to what you want to say. Each word or phrase you think of saying sounds like the dull noise of counterfeit coins.

Prayerful silence: This is a silence attentive to God’s presence, a human silence that participates in the divine silence. It is a silence that marks many experienced pilgrims.

Last but not least, evangelical silence: The Greek word for the Gospel is evangelion — good news. There are times when silence is better than words in communicating the truths that are ultimately beyond the reach of words. In a world of constant noise and endless verbal disputes, silence can sometimes communicate truths that are beyond assertion and argument.

An story of evangelical silence: Archbishop Theophilus of Alexandria, one of the principal cities of the ancient world, once traveled to the monastic colony at Skete in the Egyptian desert. The younger monks were distressed that their elder, Abbot Pambo, had nothing to say to their august and powerful visitor. “Say a word or two to the bishop,” they urged him, “that his soul may be edified in this place.” Abbot Pambo replied: “If he is not edified by my silence, there is no hope that he will be edified by my words.”[ii]

One can imagine that Archbishop Theophilus, a man who had heard endless words from the many people courting his attention, returned to Alexandria shaken by his encounter with a community of men who had completely resigned from chatter. The monks made no effort to convince him of anything or win any favors. For the length of his stay, their august guest was simply a fellow Christian who, in a climate of silence, found himself freed from the heavy burden of being an Important Person with all the words and gestures that importance involves. He was a visitor in a household of tranquil prayer. The monks bathed him in their own quietness.

One of the early saints who emphasized the place of silence in spiritual life was St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, who died as a martyr late in the first century. In a letter written shortly before his death, he said:

He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence.[iii]

Far from being a God who insists on being heard, overpowering the noise of the world with a heavenly roar, our creator seems chiefly to speak to us so quietly that the normal environment for hearing is inner silence. The prophet Elijah experienced God’s voice as being like a whisper. Elijah was hiding in a cave near what later became the city of Haifa. God made himself known to Elijah not in a rock-shattering wind, or in an earthquake, or in fire and lightning, but in “a still small voice.” (1 Kings 19:11-12)

The benefits of silence were stressed by St. Anthony the Great, the founder of desert monasticism. He wrote:

When you lie down on your bed, remember with thanksgiving the blessings and providence of God. Thereupon, filled with good thoughts, you will rejoice in spirit and the sleep of your body will mean sobriety of the soul; the closing of your eyes a true acknowledging of God, and your silence, brimming with awareness of all that is good, will wholeheartedly and with all its strength glorify almighty God, so that praise will rise to the heavens from your heart.

Another desert saint, John Climacus, a sixth century abbot of St. Catherine’s Monastery in the barren wilderness of Sinai, stressed the role of silence in prayer in his guidebook to the spiritual life, The Ladder of Divine Ascent:

Intelligent silence is the mother of prayer, freedom from bondage, custodian of zeal, a guard on our thoughts, a watch on our enemies, a prison of mourning, a friend of tears, a sure recollection of death, a painter of punishment, a concern with judgment, servant of anguish, foe of license, a companion of stillness, the opponent of dogmatism, a growth of knowledge, a hand to shape contemplation, hidden progress, the secret journey upward.[iv]

Silence is not something that can be measured with scientific instruments nor does it exclude all conversation. Spoken words can communicate divine silence just as silence can be a voice of enmity. As another of the great desert saints, Abba Poemen the Shepherd, said:

One man seems silent of speech, but is condemning other people within his heart — he is really talking incessantly. Another man seems to talk all day, yet keeps his silence, for he always speaks in a way that is useful to his hearers.

No community of people is more aware than poets of the limitations of words. In a letter to a younger poet, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote:

Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe. Most experiences are unsayable. They happen in a space that no word has ever entered…[v]

Silence is an essential dimension of icons, which serve as wordless translations of the Gospel. It’s part of what distinguishes iconography from ordinary painting. Just as many paintings create an illusion of three dimensions, so can an artist suggest sound, even an eruption of noise. Stand attentively before a painting of a great battle done by a skilled artist and you can hear the explosions, the clash of weapons, the cries of wounded soldiers. Stand before an icon and you find yourself enveloped in deep silence, a silence that seems to contain the breath of the Holy Spirit. Take enough time and a good icon will help quiet your mind. As you move beyond intellectual exploration of an icon’s content, it may awaken a longing to pray. It may even assist you in resolving a problem you have been struggling with.

As Thomas Merton wrote to his Greek friend, Marco Pallis, thanking him for the gift of a hand-painted icon:

How shall I begin? I have never received such a precious and magnificent gift from anyone in my life. I have no words to express how deeply moved I was to come face to face with this sacred and beautiful presence granted to me…. At first I could hardly believe it…. It is a perfect act of timeless worship. I never tire of gazing at it. There is a spiritual presence and reality about it, a true spiritual “Thaboric” light, which seems unaccountably to proceed from the Heart of the Virgin and Child as if they had One heart, and which goes out to the whole universe. It is unutterably splendid. And silent. It imposes a silence on the whole hermitage. … [This] icon of the Holy Mother came as a messenger at a precise moment when a message was needed, and her presence before me has been an incalculable aid in resolving a difficult problem.[vi]

Merton brought an icon with him on what proved to be his final journey, his pilgrimage to Asia in 1968. Though traveling light, like so many pilgrims before him, he regarded an icon as essential baggage. He knew from repeated experience that icons radiate a “Thaboric” light — an intimation of the uncreated light the three apostles experienced on Galilee’s Mount Thabor when the transfigured Christ silently revealed to them his divinity.

Merton’s journey in the final weeks of his life was a time of silence and prayer, except in those brief periods when he was in conversation, and even then, prayer shaped the conversations. How appropriate that the few material possessions shipped back with his body included his beloved icon of Christ and his mother. “Traveling” icons — small icons mounted on cardboard or a thin piece of wood, or relief icons cast from bronze or some other metal — are part of the pilgrim tradition.

A pilgrimage without prayer is no pilgrimage at all. There is no prayer without silent, attentive listening. The invitational silence of an icon helps the pilgrim to keep praying. Place an icon next to your bed at night. In the daytime be aware of it in your pocket or backpack. It provides a quiet but insistent reminder of what the journey is all about.

Pilgrimage is an hour-by-hour school of inner listening that combines movement with seeing, attentiveness and prayer. Whether on the way to the market or on the way to Jerusalem, you see whatever there is to see: other people, traffic, garbage, flowers, weeds, wildlife, the natural world. You hear all the sounds the world around you is pronouncing: bird songs, the wind, cars, buses, trucks, planes overhead, the conversation of people along the way, the sound of your feet on various surfaces. Little that you see will imprint itself as a long-term memory. Most that you hear will come in one ear and go out the other. Mainly what we see and hear as pilgrims passes through us like light passing through glass, yet to pay attention is to be in a moment-to-moment state of communion.

Prayer, too, is rarely remembered. It is the unusual event, not the routine, that carves a place in memory. Prayer, to the extent that it becomes ordinary, is no more memorable than breathing.

I recall a conversation about silence with our daughter Wendy when she was four or five years old. She said, “You know what those little sounds are that you hear when you’re all alone?”

“What sounds?” I asked.

“You know, those sounds you hear when you’re alone.”

“What’s that, Wendy?” I replied.

“That’s God,” she said.

* * *

[i] Letter to Jubilee magazine staff, quoted by Jim Harford in his book Merton and Friends; New York: Continuum, 2006, p 105-6.

[ii] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, Benedicta Ward, translator and editor, London: Mowbray; Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications; p 81.


Epistle to the Ephesians, Chapter XV: Exhortation to confess Christ by silence as well as speech. See the online collection of writings of the Apostolic Fathers:

[iv] The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 11: On Talkativeness and Silence; Paulist Press, p 158.

[v] Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, letter one; translation by Stephen Mitchell; New York: Modern Library, 2001, p 4.

[vi] Thomas Merton, The Hidden Ground of Love, pp 473-74. In Living With Wisdom: A Biography of Thomas Merton (Jim Forest, Orbis Books), there is a chapter on “Merton and the Christ of the Byzantine Icons.”