Posts Tagged ‘Silence A Christian History.’

Sara Maitland: A Book of Silence

March 27, 2017

I felt drawn to re-read this (there’s an earlier review on this blog if you want to look) by Maitland‘s occasional columns in The Tablet, which I always enjoy. She’s a radical Catholic hermit – at least that’s how I’d sum her up – and recently mentioned a lengthy period of recuperation which had tested her decision to live in extreme isolation in Galloway.

She considers silence compared with solitude, observing that they do not necessarily go together, and nor are they mutually exclusive. Her own journey, in the latter part of her life, has moved from noise to silence to solitude. In many ways I see her personal account of silence as a companion to the excellent Silence: A Christian History, by Diarmaid MacCulloch, which I’ve also written about.

Is silence the absence of language or the absence of sound? Is written language silent? I noted that she always has reading matter with her when she isolates herself. As I Quaker, I worship in silence, but share that silence with a group of other like-minded people. Maitland had me reflecting again, in many different ways.

My personal interest in silence comes from how I find the world increasingly noise-ridden; perhaps this is exacerbated by my hearing difficulties. But I dislike how everywhere I go I must be accompanied by noise: traffic and people (and I choose to live in a town rather than miles from anywhere, I know) but in shops I am assaulted by random music, and quite often driven out of shops before I’ve made any contemplated purchase; in the street harangued by talking vehicles; deterred from entering cafes and restaurants by the thought of music I haven’t chosen accompanying my food or drink…I find unnecessary noise intrusive, and I also do worry about how so much of the world gets on my nerves as I age!

Maitland reminded me how much of every other aspect of life apart from the human is quiet or silent; I’d not ever seen the world like that before. She explores an enormous range of human experiences of silence and solitude, and places of hermitage in woods, mountains, islands and deserts through the ages, quoting in detail, as well as narrating her own journey of self-discovery and the choices which led her to her current retreat from the world. At times, she seems to take her pursuit of attentiveness to extremes, certainly much deeper than I might; she is fascinated by others’ observations and wants to emulate them, perhaps in the way that a novice hermit might seek a mentor? It was interesting to follow her as she gradually worked out what, exactly, it was that she was seeking…

She catalogues closely and in great detail the effects that silence and isolation has on her, particularly during a lengthy retreat on the isle of Skye, and links these in to others’ experiences as well. Her observations about research which suggest that too much exposure to noise has the potential to make people ill, made sense to me.

When I go away travelling, I often spend considerable lengths of time alone, walking and thinking, as far away from other people as I can get; curiously, this does lead to occasional very interesting chance encounters and conversations. But I am always glad to get back to the company of those I know and love; though I’m occasionally tempted by the thought of hermit-like silence and solitude, I honestly don’t think I’m called to it. But I really enjoyed seeing how someone else gradually found herself in that place.


Diarmaid MacCulloch: Silence – A Christian History

December 11, 2014

51+F-GVm+XL._AA160_I knew I needed to re-read Diarmaid MacCulloch‘s excellent book as soon as I finished it; I’ve waited nearly a couple of years, and found it just as interesting and provocative as first time round.

He begins with a history of the development of the many different strands of the Christian Church in the early centuries after Christ; much survived and much did not; much was consigned to the dustbin of history as heresy. Most Christian history has been written by those who won the various arguments, and by men who wanted, for all kinds of reasons, to exclude women. He raises the broader connections of the mutual influences of early Christianity and Islam on each other, in the Middle East where both faiths originated; he also reminds us that the area lay on the Silk Route, by which trade and ideas came from China and India to the West.

I liked his new perspectives on the Reformation (actually, he posits three: the iconoclasm of the ninth century, the renewal of the Western Church in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and the one we all know about): Protestants, with their insistence on communal worship, left little space for the private, individual relationship with God; they also destroyed the places of silence (monasteries) and could not offer anything to replace them.

He considers silence from many angles: as evasion and avoidance, particularly of awkward moments in church history; as compromises that allowed all kinds of dissidents to hide and survive persecution and worse. Was there silence before the creation of the world (or the Big Bang)? Perhaps God is best characterised by silence…

Christianity has many things it has wanted to be silent about: Catholic priests abusing children, Christians failing to speak out against the slaughter of Jews during the Second World War, Christians supporting slavery through many centuries.

What I appreciated most about MacCulloch’s book is the recognition of the complexity of the issues, the recovering of so many topics that have been overlooked for so long, the questioning and the reflecting which he does in a very fair and balanced way, whilst shining a torch into so many dark corners. Silence is a very rare and increasingly precious thing in our bright and noisy world, and it is useful to slow down, to remember and appreciate it.

Sara Maitland: A Book of Silence

October 2, 2013

9781582436135I’ve written about silence before (Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Silence: A Christian History) and recently re-read this book, which is also about silence with a Christian perspective, but also about the personal need of, and quest by the writer to find a suitably silent place to live out the rest of her life.

We live in an incredibly noisy world: traffic noise, ambient music, machinery that beeps and squeaks whenever we use it. There is an awful lot of meaningless conversation and talk to fill up the gaps, and in some ways perhaps many people are afraid of silence. Maitland explores the issue from all angles: it’s an erudite read, and yet she is always in there herself, and thus enabling a reader to explore for themselves, too. In some ways she follows in the footsteps of Thoreau, except the house that she creates for herself (in an isolated part of Scotland) is not seen as a temporary, but a permanent home. There were times when I felt she was being rather self-indulgent, but her quest made sense and I was happy that she seemed to have achieved her goal. It is good when a writer can acknowledge and explore more than the material aspects of our existence, and this is an account of a spiritual quest, too.

It is hard going in places, but a good book and thought-provoking, which is why I went back to it.

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