Saturday, December 13, 2008

BOOK REVIEW - A Book of Silence - Sara Maitland

As I started writing this article, my hearing was drawn, not to the qualities of silence, but to the potentially disturbing qualities of external noises. The Newmarket Road, at just after eight o'clock in the morning was starting to build up to its full daily cacophony of traffic sounds. This was accompanied by the whistles of a strong blustery breeze. The sign on the restaurant beneath our flat creaked as it swayed too and fro, conjuring up mental images of a bleak lonely place, somewhere out on a wild and desolate moor, not an urban causeway. That this sound summoned to mind such a strong association, meant that somewhere in the sound of that wind, was a more despairing echo of solitude and silence. My thoughts at the same time, were fighting with a desire to put on my headphones, and to blot out this experience of the outside world, by blasting my earlobes with musical noise. Random noise could easily be blocked out by a more refined sort of noise, of my own choosing, to bring a brief sense of being, if not at peace with my experience, at least pleasantly neutralised by it. Any unpleasant experience, whatsoever has then to be silenced. Any sense that silence might be discovered in the midst of this noise is thus routinely obliterated.

Sara Maitland comments that to a twentith century Westerner, silence is commonly held to be empty, an absence of noise, it has strong links with solitude, and in our chattering, nine to the dozen culture, it is generally considered to be, a bad thing. Silence can be a socially awkward, even threatening experience. Too much silence could drive you mad, but too much noise can too. Indeed an excess of anything pleasant, unpleasant or neutral,would push our minds to the brink. This is, at least, what a friend warned her, that silence just wasn't a healthy thing for anyone, least of all for her to pursue. But pursue it she has, and has produced this wonderfully life enhancing and enriching book as a result. All of this as a consequence of her strong urge to follow up and test her desire for silence. To reflect on, and understand, exactly what lies at the root of it. It's not just to satisfy her need though, but also the need of all humanity for a break from noise, a silent space within which to feel at peace with oneself. To be constantly surrounded by the input of external or internal noise, to be never able to escape it, unable to stop it, is almost by definition, a circumstance that would drive you insane. In the deepening of our experience of silence we can find a place of sanity,sanctity and serenity. It is this arising of grace into the fleeting flow of moments where a place is created by silence, that she is trying to acknowledge, and allow to flourish further.

This book is at its best when, in wrestling to express the nub of her experience, she manages to delineate a subtle, but significant, distinction. -for instance, between a dead silence and one that is alive. What exactly is it that makes silence alive or dead - this becomes essentially a spiritual question, what is it that we become alive too in silence? As a committed Christian, she draws on the inspired hermits and monastics from that tradition, particularly the early Desert Fathers, St Anthony and St John Cassian, for reference and example. Though she doesn't do this exclusively, her research ranges widely and draws on other religious traditions, such as Buddhism, for comparison or clarification. She also makes plentiful use of a wide range of secular sources, quoting from the auto biographies of mountaineers, explorers, adventurers and numerous literary sources, both classical and modern. These flesh out and bring a vividness and colour to what silence is, what it does, how it affects us, and makes it less specifically a religious concern, but also an environmental and psychological one. She writes with such perspicacity and expressiveness, being open and honesty about her flaws, as well as her virtues. She isn't making any claims for what she is attaining spiritually from her practice of silence, but nonetheless the frankness of her exposition is enthrawling. It takes you lovingly by the hand to experience, through her imagination, what the silence she is seeking and sometimes finds, is really like. We may want some of that silence, but we either don't recognise the need for it, don't want it enough, don't know how to obtain it, or what cultivates it. For Sara Maitland, the pursuit of silence has become a spiritual journey, one that draws her closer to the divine through prayer and contemplation. Silence seems to have become for her an act of communion. For a Buddhist, silence augments and supports meditative reflection, and this helps in liberating us from selfish preoccupation, to experience the truer qualities and nature of reality. In both traditions, external silence is a precondition, it needs to be present before any inner silence can permeate us and self transcendence can occur.

She makes it very clear in her exposition, that just because different religious traditions seek similar circumstances for practice i.e silence, that this doesn't mean that we should take up a universalised position, and assume they are 'all one'. The purpose and intent behind seeking the silence is the most important distinction, not any apparent similarity in the choice of method. A Christian seeking closer communion with God, and a Buddhist seeking self transcendence and Enlightenment, are not necessarily having the same experience, but giving it a different name. The concept and intention is a pre-condition of the eventual outcome, it paves the way. If you want to cook roast potatoes, you don't boil and mash them. Both may require a degree of solitude and silence for their goals to be obtained, but this doesn't make the goals identical. The silence serves entirely different paths and aims. She also makes an important distinction between the purpose of poetic and religious silence. The nineteenth century Romantic Movement desired solitude and silence to commune more deeply with nature, in order to be personally in touch with a deeper creative muse. This would release a fire bird of creative self-expression from within the artist. According to this viewpoint, the self is not transcended by an experience of interconnectedness, whether this is through a deeper communion with God or Enlightenment, but reaches a greater level of self-expression, both personally and artistically. The Self then is either to be overcome or fulfilled within that silence. In this the artistic and sacred conceptions of the purpose of silence, and of the self, pull in entirely opposite directions. The conflict for a writer or artist with religious convictions, is then, all too apparent. This dilemma has a long history, without a universal solution ever having been found to how these contradictory impulses can be, at the very least, accommodated, within the one being? Is it a fight to the death, or a integrative rapprochement that is required? Sara Maitland having seen and identified the nature of this problem, then has the courage to at least look it straight in the face. But it did arise out of a painful personal observation, that as the depth of her appreciation and practice of religious silence intensified, she noticed her ability to write imaginative fiction seemed to diminish accordingly. What she gained from the silence was done at an enormous cost; to herself as a writer; to the sense of her identity, to her own Self. This is what silence is meant to do, it simplifies and smooths out all the kinks in ones life and perspective, Perhaps this was why she ended up writing about silence in the first place, to help resolve, or partially absorb, these apparent dichotomies present in her own character.

'The Book of Silence,' has two hearts beating furiously, both in and out of sync. Sometimes its a very personal exploration, an auto-biographical journal about her experience of silence, at other times a literary documentary on the experience, uses and abuses, that silence has been put to throughout human history. Silence is not about just sweetness and light, it has a shadowy dark side too. Maitland is also very practical, and pragmatic about the changes in priorities, the sacrifices you have to take, if you truly want to cultivate that elusive silence, in our busy,noise infested world. That she manages to hold all these disparate threads and pulls them together coherently, is a testament to her skill as a writer, and the breadth of awareness she has cultivated, of silence itself. She very lucidly describes how the pursuit of silence has impacted, changed and transformed, not only herself, but also the sense of her spiritual purpose as a human being. This is what makes this an entirely fascinating book to read, and to ponder upon extensively afterwards.

No comments: