In the two months since the last time I wrote anything, many significant things have happened – more than can be healthy, really. But among the life-changing events, one significant thing risks being forgotten (when in fact, it sparked a few of the others).
This incident was especially ground-breaking because it meant me shutting my mouth. For seven days. To a now-familiar monastery, an abbey on the Cornish coast, I retreated. And as I kept silence, God spoke – words too intimate, too delicate, to cast out for public comment.
But I was surprised how much I also learned from the silence itself. I assumed it would be a most unnatural habitat for an extrovert. But over the seven days in which I made it my home, I took away a few important lessons:
1. Silence means freedom from FOMO.
Independence is a bit of a farce, really. I like to think my decisions are made on the basis of my own thinking, my own values, even my own desires – but it turns out that so many of my choices about how I spend my time are usually guided by the thought that other people might be doing something together, without me. If I don’t go, I could miss a bonding experience, a significant moment.
But when no-one is speaking to each other at all, I’m set free to enjoy the solitude without fear of missing out.
2. Other people can cope without my ‘help’.
There’s 12 or 15 of us in the kitchen, all playing our part in the conveyor belt of washing, rinsing, drying and organising the dinner dishes. The person collecting cutlery clearly knows nothing of the superior system I had for gathering it yesterday. And sadly, as we’re working in silence, I can’t tell him.
Two people across the room keep rewashing glasses that the other has already cleaned, and silenced, I can’t point out their mistake. In fact, I can’t give my advice to anyone. But amazingly, every job in the room is completed by the person assigned to it, entirely without my help!
And, freed to focus on the task at hand, I complete my own work twice as fast as usual.
3. Silence breeds initiative.
Seven days without complaining. It must be the first week since I learnt to speak that I’ve not complained about anything. There are, I discover, two alternatives to moaning. One is nothing, when the thing can’t be helped – muttering about the rain won’t stop it, sighing loudly at the hoover won’t improve it. And the other is to get on and do the thing you can change. I’d never realised that so much complaining is a thinly veiled, passive aggressive request for someone else to do something. But when you can’t say, ‘Look at that bowl of discarded teabags spilling over!’, you just go and empty it instead. When you can’t say ‘I think this trolley needs to go back to the dining room’, you just take the trolley.
In silent mode, I am a refiller of water jugs, a closer of draughty windows, a replenisher of biscuits. And all without being asked!
4. I am a simpler soul than I thought.
One of the many things I was dreading about a week in silence was being trapped in my own thoughts – driven mad by the constant buzz in the hive of activity housed within my skull. It’s bad enough, I thought, hearing all my own thoughts even with London-levels of external stimulation.
So I’m surprised to find that there’s very little going on up there most of the time. In silence, minutes could turn to hours with nothing in the way of philosophising or existential contemplation.
5. I don’t need distracting from existence.
I must spend hours in a normal week distracting myself. I must have convinced myself that I need distracting. It’s why I watch TV if I’m eating dinner alone, and why I scroll through Twitter yet again when I’m waiting for the tube.
But one of the greatest pleasures of my week in silence is sitting alone in my little room, drinking a cup of tea, and doing nothing else. Not reading, not checking messages, not planning conversation or a blog – just being.
I’m so glad that we handed in all technology so I could experience this for the first time in years, if ever.
6. Space is significant.
Days are usually divided by noise – the morning exchanges with housemates, the awkward silence of the commute, the catch-up chatter with colleagues, the mostly-quiet desk work, the competitively vocal meeting.
With the whole rhythm of my day passing in silence, it feels important to mark out the deliberate, set aside times for prayer, the sort of prayer that doesn’t just start and stop when I feel like it, but prayer as an exercise, a discipline. For me, that means deliberate prayer happens in the chapel, even when bed is much warmer and much comfier.
When volume changes can’t mark out time for God, holy ground fills the role.
7. Silence is a leveller.
In any normal group situation, there are signifiers that give us an ordering, higher or lower levels of social status. Those who can hold the attention of a group rise to the top – the funny, the charismatic, the interesting, the confident. Those whose small talk is painfully awkward tend to sink and disappear into the lower ranks.But in silence, distinctions by wit, intelligence, popularity or eloquence fade away. There are no in-jokes, no outsiders; no cool lunch tables, no outcast groupings.
Everyone is forced to stop performing. Everyone is left face to face with themselves.