I’m an extrovert by nature. I love people, conversation, and being sociable in general. But, for the past week, I’ve lived in a community where conversation has been forbidden in the name of silent retreat. I only observed the silence fully for 2 days, which in theory meant no social media, as well as no talking, for the duration. While not having verbal conversation felt surprisingly natural, possibly due to already being accustomed to it at mealtimes and certain parts of the day, I failed dismally at eschewing social media for a mere 48 hours. I’m a true millennial, and without Facebook and Twitter, I feel truly isolated. Truly silent and silenced. And this is a terrifying notion.
The Old Testament often refers to silence in negative terms. The silence of God is terrifying – even more so than a lack of social media, and the Psalmist frequently pleads with God to speak, to not be silent; in these instances, to be silent is to be utterly absent. Diarmaid Macculloch points out that to be silenced in the Old Testament is generally synonymous with being put to death. This all feels rather damning, and silence certainly gets a hard press in a lot of the Hebrew Bible.
Just as the Psalmist pleads God to speak, he (along with the prophets) insists repeatedly that he will be silent no longer. The implication is, again, that silence is to one’s detriment; it is, indeed in opposition to creation itself, which is triggered by the words of God, and must be broken. The Old Testament is, at its heart, the centuries-long story of an oppressed people demanding that their voices be heard. This resonates in the world today – in the case of women, as Sara Maitland points out in her book on silence, or in the case of subjugated peoples as shown by the breaking of silence via social media in the Arab Spring. Social media is one of the prime ways in which many are given a voice and is particularly interesting when it comes to the breaking of silence: it levels everyone and does not inherently privilege certain voices.
It is clear that silence is rarely, in the Bible, a conscious and decisive action taken by the individual. It is the cause of terror, the prime metaphor for death, and a key aspect of oppression. Silence now is little different: it is a luxury afforded to those who have a choice. Silence as a valid form of expression can only exist for those who have a voice to begin with. It is not inherently virtuous: it can only be a positive when it is actively and joyously chosen. It is in this way that it brings us into communion with God. This is the silence found in Psalm 4, with God’s servant choosing and promising to be silent. The silence of Jesus at his trial. It is in this voluntary silence, not imposed upon us, that we are at peace. And when we are at peace, we can listen.