Silence is opportunity


10 Mar 2020

Silences not an absence but rather a consciousness toward other people or toward God.

Have you ever been to the MCG on ANZAC Day and experienced a football crowd of some 90,000 people listening in silence to the haunting notes of the bugler playing ‘The Last Post’?

It is breathtaking, as the nation stops for a minute to honour the men and women of the military who have gone before us. It is a moment of strong connection, perhaps our clearest expression of a national spirituality. The silence is overpowering for that fleeting passage of time.

Just recently I attended a funeral service in the Xavier College Memorial Chapel for a young mother of two sons in the school – one in Year 11 and the other in Year 9. At the end of the celebration, as the Congregation stood in waiting for the pall bearers to pick up the coffin and carry it to the hearse, the Year 11 students left their seats to join the guard of honour on the Chapel patio.

As they filed past the front row where the family was seated, each one of them placed his hand on the shoulder of their friend and colleague grieving the loss of his mother. I was overcome by this wonderful gesture of connection and sympathy by these young men – intuitive, unplanned I think – speaking powerfully of affection and support without any words.


It reminded me of what Cardinal Basil Hume once wrote about prayer: ‘Perhaps one of the high points of prayer is where two silences meet: God’s silence and our silence. No need for thoughts and words get in the way.’

That fine New England poet, Mary Oliver, penned something similar on ‘praying’ when she invited readers to ‘patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate, this isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.’

I can remember reading the memoirs of our Jesuit General 1965-1981, Father Pedro Arrupe, whose cause for canonisation has been recently initiated in Rome.

As a missionary in Japan in 1942, he was wrongly imprisoned in Yamaguchi for suspected espionage. While he was incarcerated for a brief period only, he wrote of his experience: ‘Many were the things I learned during this time: the science of silence, of solitude, of severe and austere poverty, of inner dialogue with the ‘guest of my soul.’ I believe this was the most instructive month of my entire life.’

On his release he remarked to the prison Governor: ‘I am not resentful to you. You are someone who has done me good… you have taught me to suffer.’

While he was in a jail and solitary confinement for the comparatively short time of 33 days, Arrupe was interrogated for an unbroken 36 hours. On Christmas night, when his spirits were low, he began to hear a soft murmuring outside his cell.


‘There arose a soft, sweet, consoling Christmas carol, one which I myself had taught my Christians. I burst into tears. Heedless of the danger of being themselves imprisoned, they had come to console me. It lasted for a few minutes, and then there was silence again: they had gone, and I was left to myself. But I felt that Jesus had descended into my heart, and that night I made the best spiritual communion of my life.’

Last century Thomas Merton wrote once – thankfully giving me the title of this editorial – that ‘silence is not absence; it is opportunity. Silence is the condition and the doorway.’

In other words, silence is not just the absence of noise. We can now purchase special headphones to do that.

No, silence is a state of mind and an attitude of consciousness turned towards others or to God. It is attention, as Benedictine teacher Laurence Freeman has pointed out: ‘To listen deeply, to give oneself in the act of attention is in fact not to judge, or fix or condemn but to love. Seen this way there is indeed nothing so much like God as silence because God is love.’


To conclude, let me quote from some wisdom offered in 1982 to Year 12 graduates by Professor Hedley Beare, one of Australia’s great educationalists and a committed Christian: ‘As you move beyond school into the space where you will spend the rest of your life, remember those two things. Firstly, journey outwards, beyond what you now know, deliberately grow, cultivate the skills of being a citizen of the wider world and live in that wider space confidently.

Secondly, for God’s sake, learn how to journey inwards, into stillness; earnestly search out how to be in harmony with the depth of being. Deliberately cultivate daily the habit of silence.’ 

Image: Playing The Last Post at the MCG – Getty Images

Email this Print This Page