The Power of Silence – review
The Power of Silence: the riches that lie within, by Graham Turner, October 2012. Bloomsbury, 254 pages hardback, ISBN 978-1-4411-8223-4. RRP £16.99
This book explores the subject of ‘silence’ by means of a journey – both physical and spiritual – through diverse places, people and spiritual practices. The meaning and importance of it are conveyed through conversations, reflections and personal experience. The author describes it as an experience of being ‘led’ by the subject itself in a profound and unexpected way.
One of the features of the book is its encompassing of different religious and non-religious practices of silence. Graham Turner begins by exploring and discovering the rich and diverse spiritual traditions of India where the concept and practice of silence is not only revered, but is an integral part of its culture. The author converses with gurus, Sufis, story-telling holy men and Hindu nuns. In other chapters he visits the Maharishi University of Management in Iowa, based on the practice of Transcendental Meditation, and encounters, sometimes in a slightly bemused way, Zen practitioner groups in Britain.
The Christian monastic tradition is represented by the Gethsemani Trappist Monastery in America, where Thomas Merton spent many years, and the Coptic Monastery of St Macarius in Egypt. At Gethsemani the author experiences the silence of a Retreat and converses with attendees, who have come for respite and spiritual refreshment from a noisy America, and by the monks themselves who explain the purpose of silence as a spiritual discipline. At St Macarius and other desert monasteries in Egypt, he meets with those who have often forsaken the world and lucrative professional jobs in order to find and serve God, sometimes living as hermits in the tradition of the Desert Fathers. He describes his days there as being among the most enriching of his life. There is also a visit to a Quaker Meeting to gain an insight into their use of silence in worship, although this is mainly the case in Britain and some parts of America as there are Quaker traditions, notably in Kenya, where silence is not a predominant feature. There are also individual interviews with Christian practitioners of contemplative and silent prayer, such as Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar and author of many books, and Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk, who describes the practice of Centering Prayer.
Graham Turner also devotes several chapters to the healing and life-changing power of silence in people’s lives. Among these is a group in Beirut, run by a Sunni Muslim and an Orthodox Christian, formerly on different sides during the Civil War, who through the practice of group silence have brought together those who were once enemies, but who now work for peace and reconciliation in Lebanon. Another area where silence can bring a healing touch is in the psychotherapeutic process and the author gives examples of this through his interviews with several prominent therapists. Finally and perhaps most movingly, is his interview with a self-confessed murderer in a Scottish prison who has discovered the life-changing potential of regular meditation. The healing and uplifting power of the natural world is experienced in the author’s description of a walking holiday in the Engadin in Switzerland where one can find oneself and put life into perspective; can regain humility and see oneself as part of the natural world rather than completely outside it. In other words, it can remind us of our place in Creation and restore our reverence for it.
The crucial element of silence in both music and acting have chapters of their own and one is left with the impression that the spaces between musical notation and spoken words are every bit as important as the music and speech themselves. In fact, they would lose their impact without the space created by the silences. The author ends his account of the power of silence by sharing a personal experience that he had in 1955 whilst undertaking National Service in Singapore and states that it is one of the reasons why he wrote the book. He also details similar occurrences experienced by other people from different backgrounds and traditions who have heeded an inner voice. The final words of wisdom on the subject come from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Bishop Richard Chartres who both reverence and practice silence in their spiritual lives.
Graham Turner has written a fascinating and highly-readable book, one to dip into and return to often for enlightenment and inspiration. I highly commend it for its humility, spirituality and profound sense of humanity.