Years ago, I was planning a solo vacation to Florence Italy. This appalled many of my friends and family. The solo part, not the Florence part. Along with safety concerns, one friend said to me – how can you go see all of those beautiful things without someone to talk to about them? The reply I did not attempt to articulate? To me, the only true response to transcendent beauty is silence. Anything else cheapens the experience. Describe later, if you’re moved to do so. Share your awe and joy after the fact. But in the moment? Silence.
Silence is a tricky, fragile thing. For one, it is trumped by everything around it. If confronted by your noise I cannot turn up the volume on my silence to drown out the distraction. I must learn to hold the silence within myself.
Silence is looked upon with suspicion. Refrain from telling your secrets. Decline to offer an opinion. See how uncomfortable that sometimes makes the people around you, even if they have no claim on your secrets. Even if you have no true opinion to offer in that moment.
And silence can be scary. Thoughts and truths that can only work their way to the surface in silence are those we have left long-buried for a reason. In silence we confront the ugliness in ourselves that we often use the noise to deny.
When I was a girl I discovered mornings. I don’t remember precisely why I began occasionally rising before the rest of my family, but I remember clearly a couple of things about those first early mornings. First was silence wholly foreign to my normal experiences living in an apartment with our family of seven. Second was all of the sensations the silence afforded me. The cool air, the smooth surface of the wood floor underneath my bare feet. I don’t have clear memories of our apartment itself during the day in the noise but I can see it clearly in the pre-dawn stillness.
Even now I rarely notice the sense of the ground beneath my feet except upon arising early from my bed without the clangor of an alarm and unrushed by appointments. I am never so calm, so aware of and at peace with my body, and so open to God as I am in those stolen, silent moments before the sunrise.
There are many kinds of silence, each with its own nuance and power:
The often unacknowledged silence of refraining from unnecessary or unkind words.
Silence that invites confidences followed by the gracious silence of the listener.
The open-armed silence that shares grief.
The silence of manual work.
The silence of companionship.
The silence of a gesture that can castigate, insult, or love. The silence of the other cheek turned.
There is the wordy silence of the writer and the thirsty silence of the reader.
There is the silence of breath, of meditation, of prayer and of worship.
On the last day of my vacation in Florence I went to the Uffizi. I ended my trip through the art and sat down at a rooftop café. I drank hot chocolate, watched the amazing Tuscan sunset, and listened to the bells ring. I was at eye level with those bells. I remember the moment as still, though many people were around me. I would not have objected to a travel companion at that moment. We could have enjoyed a kind of silence together.
Merry Christmas. May this be a special and silent night for you and yours.