Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Gifts of Silence and Solitude

Rev. Kit Ketcham, PUUF
March 15, 2015
         I invite you to spend a few minutes in silence before I begin.  
         What was that like for you?   How do we humans tend to respond when it’s been silent for a while?  Does it matter where we are?  Who we’re with?  These are questions to consider this morning as we look at some of the contributions of World Religions to UUism.
         I’ve had a couple of formative experiences with silence.  The first one was embarrassing, the second was revelatory.
         When I lived in Denver, I had a big old Dodge van that I went camping in.  One summer I attended the Unitarian Universalist family camp at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, a place not far from Abiquiu, the home of the well known artist Georgia O’Keefe.    I drove down from Denver in my van and camped in the Ghost Ranch campground.
         The choir at my home congregation, Jefferson Unitarian Church, had just performed selections from the Lord Nelson Mass and I brought the CD with me, to play while I drove.  The Lord Nelson Mass is a marvelous composition by Franz Joseph Haydn, full of majestic crescendos and melodic (but loud) themes  and written during Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign in the late 18th century.
         You may be able to see where this is going. 
         My first morning in the campground, I’d gone up to the dining room for breakfast and when I returned to my campsite, I decided to do a little housekeeping inside the van before the morning program began. 
So I turned on the CD player, cranked up the volume, and let ‘er rip.  Something about the majestic chords of the music echoing among the sandstone cliffs and sagebrush paths just enlivened my extrovert energies and I was singing along to the alto part of one of the sections when a neighboring camper approached me and said politely, “you know, the silence really feels better here than even the most beautiful music.”
         Chastened and enlightened, I apologized, turned off the CD, and went silently about my tidying up.  And I thought about her courteous words, how I might feel about seeing her later, and letting the meaning of her words sink into my consciousness.
         A couple of years later, I signed up for a special class through the seminary where I was attending.  I didn’t know if I would be successful in this three-day winter seminar which was at a Catholic retreat center south of Denver.  It was to be a silent retreat.  Silence for three days.  No talking except in the daily short instructional sessions.  I couldn’t imagine how I would do it.
         At the time I signed up for the class, I had had very little experience with silence, except for that memorable time at Ghost Ranch.  Over my career as a counselor, I’d gotten good at listening and encouraging other people to talk,  but at least one of us was always making a sound!  My radio was always turned on at home and the neighborhood sounds came right through the thin walls and windows of my home.
         So I wasn’t sure how I would respond to prescribed silence.  I’m a bit of a rebel and like to set my own limits, not let others tell me what to do.  When I’d had laryngitis, as a teacher, I just croaked on. 
         I thought three days of silence would be really hard.  It would be awkward and I’d goof up.  But I remembered how embarrassed I’d been when someone had told me she liked silence even better than beautiful music.  I figured I had something I needed to learn about silence.
        It turned out that eating silent meals with others at the retreat meant gestures toward salt and pepper and butter, smiles instead of please and thank you.  It meant walking quietly with others, not exclaiming aloud about the beauty of our surroundings. 
       It meant social gatherings over a bottle of wine where we sat quietly and listened to birds, watched for wildlife, and marveled in silence at the blue skies and wintry landscape.  It meant no music from the next door room as I wrote in my journal.  It meant few distractions from my surroundings and thus more depth in my introspection.  I was amazed at how often I wanted to fill silence with words or music or other sounds.
      When I went home after the retreat, I had a new appreciation for silence and solitude.  I learned to do things alone, rather than with others.  I began to understand my own extroversion more clearly and how easy it can be for an exuberant person to overshadow, even overpower, a quieter person.  I began to see that my strengths, taken to an extreme, could be handicaps and could affect my relationships.
      As I continued my preparation for ministry, these lessons became more and more useful.  My exuberance gradually morphed from enjoyment of my own ideas into enthusiasm for others’ ideas. 
      My witticisms became less about showing off my own punni-ness and more about appreciating others’ ability to provide laughter.  I hope my judgments became less biting and a lot more compassionate.
      You know me well enough by now to realize that I have not become a perfect person.  I still get kind of loud at times, I am not as kind as I might be in my critiques, and I still love my own jokes, whether others agree or not.  But the gifts of silence, as I come to understand them, have given me a perspective that I had not had before.
      A couple of weeks ago, a friend mentioned a book that he’d been reading.  It had given him insight into his own introversion and how it has shaped his life.  I was intrigued and got a copy of the book myself, “Quiet” by Susan Cain.  And I learned while working with Bree on this service that she too has read and appreciated this book and she told me a bit about her own experience as an introvert who loves theatre and singing.
      And as I perused it, I began to think of Quietness, Stillness, Silence, as a window for appreciating  the contributions of several World Religions to Unitarian Universalism, for Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism, in addition to Judaism and Christianity, advocate silence and solitude as pathways to spiritual growth and enlightenment.
      Many Unitarian Universalist thinkers also encourage silence and solitude as possible pathways to a deeper spiritual life.  Unitarian Universalist poet May Sarton wrote this passage:
“Begin here. (she wrote) It is raining. I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my ‘real’ life again at last. That is what is strange – that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened.  Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone here and the house and I resume old conversations.”
         And another Unitarian poet, Walt Whitman, wrote this:
“When I heard the learn’d astronomer; When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me; When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide and measure them; When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick; Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself, In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”
         We Unitarian Universalists have taken this wisdom of other religions and our own sages and have incorporated silence in small ways into our religious practices, though somewhat sparsely.  We pause for a few moments in our religious service and are invited into a time of prayer and meditation; we listen to our musicians and restrain ourselves from applauding (if possible).  But those of us who are more extroverted UUs do love to talk and are not always as comfortable with silence as our more introverted folks.
         We are sometimes oblivious to the needs of our more introverted members and friends.  We forget that it can be uncomfortable for a shy person to stand up and introduce herself; we can get so excited by our own thoughts that we forget to ask others for theirs; extroversion has so often been considered the “right” way to be that we may neglect the gifts of silence and solitude, so important to quieter people and vital to a balanced life.      
      As I’ve mentioned, Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism, as well as Judaism and Christianity, all include, in their spiritual roadmaps, a reminder to seek times of silence and solitude,  for reflection, for self-examination, and for rest from the intrusions of daily life, a time to be absorbed by the natural world, to find wonderment and healing in the vastness of the sky, the sea, the mountains.
         Monastic communities have long offered the relief of silence and solitude to spiritual seekers, and Quakers invoke silence in worship to allow the still small voice of the Divine to be heard.  In comparison, we UU extroverts tend to be a much more verbally inclined bunch and forget that silence can be more profound than the most erudite lecture.
         “Silence is not the absence of something,
 but the presence of everything.” says Gordon Hempton, Founder of the project, One Square Inch of Silence. He writes: “One Square Inch of Silence is very possibly the quietest place in the United States. It is an independent research project located in the Hoh Rain Forest of Olympic National Park, which is one of the most pristine, untouched, and ecologically diverse environments in the United States.   (He goes on) If nothing is done to preserve and protect this quiet place from human noise intrusions, natural quiet may be non-existent in our world in the next 10 years. Silence is a part of our human nature, which can no longer be heard by most people." 
         It may be that silence and solitude have so often been used to hurt people, deliberately or thoughtlessly, that we have become a little afraid of it.  I know that I, in the past, have had to deal with old memories of being separated from my father by his silence in response to something I’d done that he didn’t approve of.
         His intentions---since he was determined not to act like his own father and paddle me for my mistakes---were honorable, but I feared the silence every bit as much as a spanking because I didn’t always know what it meant; I didn’t always know if I’d might lose him by my actions.  For that very reason, I did not talk with him about my becoming a Unitarian way back in the days before he died.  I just didn’t have the courage.  I didn’t know how he would respond and I was afraid to take the chance.
         Solitary confinement for prisoners has been shown to be damaging to mental and physical health, yet ascetics and hermits have cloistered themselves for centuries without apparent ill effects.  What, then, is the difference?
         What makes one kind of silence positive and healing and another kind of silence poisonous and hurtful?  Why does one  kind of solitude give stress relief and another kind of solitude foster deep loneliness and separation?
         I would call the one “open silence” and the other “closed silence”.  I would call one kind of solitude “open solitude” and the other kind “closed solitude”.
         I don’t know these things for sure, but when we are silent and open, I think we may be more receptive to our own insights and reflections.  When we are silent and closed, we may block out self-awareness and the knowledge of what our silence may inflict on others.  When we are open in our solitude, perhaps we are more mindful of our surroundings, our unique setting; when we are closed off in our solitude, perhaps that is when loneliness comes.
         A practice of open silence and solitude brings gifts, I’ve discovered:  opportunity for self-reflection, for examining one’s relationships in light of one’s insights about self, for considering the ways we might be helpful to another person, a chance to let creative juices flow.  It can be a time of prayer and meditation, or journaling, or writing poetry or song.
         It can be a time of idleness and rest, of chores that require little thought but bring greater harmony, of listening for a still small voice of wisdom, some solution becoming evident.  It can be a way of unsnarling the anger that visits us occasionally, focusing our thoughts on what we CAN do instead of what we can’t.  Open silence and solitude can bring us peace of heart and mind, giving us some distance from our daily lives and a sense of balance and wholeness.  Open silence and solitude can ground us and give us serenity and clarity.          
      What would happen if we each vowed intentionally to bring more open silence and solitude into our lives?  As a person who lives alone, I ought to be able to do this easily, but I still find myself chattering away to my cat or myself about my daily worries.  I still turn the radio on every morning to listen to KMUN and its classical melodies and sing along with the folk songs at 10 a.m.
         But when I go out onto the beach where the only sound is that of the breakers and the gulls, my thoughts turn away from news of wars and the latest petty crises in town and toward the immensity of the ocean and the sky, and the wind seems to sweep my mind clear of the blather of our noisy world.
         There’s a poem that I often read when I am anguished about the events of our human life, and I’d like to read it to you in closing today.  “Choose Something Like a Star” by Robert Frost, written in 1916. 

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud,
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says "I burn."
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats' Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid. 

         Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION:  As Bree extinguishes the chalice, let’s pause for our benediction. 
Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place.  Let us go in peace, remembering that times of silence and solitude can bring us peace and purpose.  May we use silence and solitude to heal ourselves and quiet our minds and actions for the benefit of ourselves and others.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


UU Clicker said...

Love your blog!

Thank you for for advocating the practice of silence. When I first met UUs, I thought these are nice people, but they never shut up.

What I wrote Quest about The Learned Astronomer: The poet experiences awe and wonder, an experience the astronomer is just as capable of. However, the astronomer is aware of so much more than the poet. The astronomer can marvel at the history of the stars, the natural laws that govern their movement, and much more.

Scientists see not only the present moment, but through time and space.

Keep blogging!

Lilylou said...

Thanks very much for your kind comment. I haven't been blogging much lately, but I'm getting inspired to get back to it. Your comment is very encouraging~