John O’Donohue in his book Eternal Echoes has some profound observations about the place of silence in the spiritual life and it relationship to the life of prayer.

He begins by articulating a fundamental truth that all mystical traditions have understood. Whenever we attempt to speak of  the deep realities of life and spirit, words are woefully inadequate.

There are no words for the deepest things. Words become feeble when mystery visits and prayer moves into silence.

O’Donohue then points out the sad fact that silence is anathema in our culture with devastating results.

In post-modern culture the ceaseless din of chatter has killed our acquaintance with silence. Consequently, we are stressed and anxious. Silence is a fascinating presence. Silence is shy; it is patient and never draws attention to itself. Without the presence of silence, no word could ever be said or heard. Our thoughts constantly call up new words. We become so taken with words that we barely notice the silence

But, he argues, despite our best attempts to fill the universe with our “ceaseless chatter,” silence is not destroyed by the clamour and clutter of our lives.

the silence is always there. The best words are born in the fecund silence that minds the mystery.

The goal of prayer is to open into the spaciousness and mystery of this “fecund silence.”

…When the raft of prayer leaves the noisy streams of words and thoughts, it enters the still lake of silence. At this point, you become aware of the tranquility that lives within you. Beneath your actions, gestures, and thoughts, there is a silent tranquility.

When you pray, you visit the kind innocence of your soul. This is a pure place of unity which the noise of life can never disturb. You enter the secret temple of your deepest belonging. Only in this temple can your hungriest longing find stillness and peace. This is summed up in that lovely line from the Bible “Be still and know that I am God.” In stillness, the silence of the divine becomes intimate.

…When we pray, we pray to that space in the Divine Presence which absolutely knows us. This could be what is suggested in the New Testament when it says of our return to the invisible world: “On that day you will know as you are known.”

John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes (p. 206-207)

To enter silence is to give ourselves to “that space in the Divine Presence” that is beyond words, thoughts, feelings, and any human ability of articulation. Silence has the capacity to bring us to that place where we no longer need to formulate grand schemes to give form to our spiritual lives. We come to that place of “innocence of… soul” that is content simply to be, to open, and receive the gift of life.

The thing about silence that O’Donohue captures, but that is frequently misunderstood, is that the silence whose virtues he extols is “fecund”. Fecund means “fruitful in offspring or vegetation.” When we enter the silence of the divine, we touch the creative power of love that brought all existence into being and sustains all life.

Silence is not an escapist, self-indulgent practice the practitioner uses to flee the harsh realities of life. Silence is the place we enter in order to connect with the deepest well-springs of life from which we are enabled to re-engage in life with renewed gentleness, freedom, compassion, creativity, and love.

In silence and stillness our consciousness opens to an awareness of the divine who guides us to interact with the world with truth and authenticity. This seems like a worthwhile goal to which we might commit a few minutes each day.

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