A BOOK OF SILENCE
By Sara Maitland
We live in noise. The world is a booming, rustling, buzzing place to begin with (though many of us have shut out nature’s clamor), and to that we have added every conceivable vibration of our own making and every possible means of assault, whether it’s the vast, thrumming climate-controlling systems of our sealed buildings or the tiny earbuds nestled against our cochleae. What chance does quiet have against all this?
Plenty, it turns out. Sara Maitland has scaled the heights (or is it depths?) of what might be the only frontier humankind will never conquer and cannot, in spite of itself, destroy — silence. Infinite, fathomless, terrifying, uplifting, unknowable, gorgeous silence. It’s difficult to convey the thrill of “A Book of Silence,” an adventure story that doesn’t involve roaring crowds or screaming headlines, doesn’t depict a heroine climbing high mountains or sailing vast oceans, doesn’t chronicle racing pulses or sweaty palms, and yet is every bit as awe-inspiring, death-defying and mind-blowing as any trip up Everest. Rarely have I been so amazed at the splendor of a new landscape unfolding before my eyes, and felt so tense wondering what was going to happen as this intrepid writer pushed her way across the pages.
“A Book of Silence” is a brilliant exploration of something — or is it a nothing? — that right at the start is impossible to define precisely. Is silence the absence of words? Or is it the absence of sound altogether? Is there even such a thing as silence that we can experience? Isn’t there always the swoosh of blood through the body? Is silence dependent on external conditions? Or is it a quality of mind? What would you call the visual effect of something like a Rothko painting?
For her own purposes, Maitland decides, silence is that which is broken up by “words and speech particularly.” Her journey into silence began around the time she turned 50. Her marriage had disintegrated, her youngest child had left home, she had begun gardening (we know where that leads) and she found herself alone, free to do anything she pleased: “What I . . . wanted was to forge a life with silence at the very center of it.” Maitland had been a practicing Christian for 30 years, but during this time of change her spiritual life began to intensify. “I find praying difficult, challenging and very hard work,” she confides, “but I also find it necessary, surpassingly lovely and crucially important.”
Maitland set out with many questions about the nature of silence and its companion, solitude. The most urgent was posed in reaction to a letter from a respected friend, who argued against silence as “the place of death, of nothingness.” Yet Maitland became convinced that silence was not a “negative condition” but “a positive presence.” So she set out to prove this radical proposition — one that, as it happens, caused alarm and concern among her friends and family. People who spend a great deal of their time quiet and alone are often considered selfish, if not misanthropic, although nothing could be further from the truth. Maitland sets out from a place of loving concern, full of tenderness for the human condition and hope that we might fulfill our best destinies.
She begins her life-changing adventure by spending 40 days and 40 nights alone in a tiny house set high on a ridge on the Isle of Skye. There she experiences “a group of sensations, most of them oddly physical,” including disinhibition, auditory hallucinations and “ineffability and bliss.” Later, she visits the silence of the Sinai Desert and the windswept hills of the Scottish borders. And eventually she has a new house built for herself in a remote place, far from her old life.
Surprisingly, Maitland’s journey provokes a crisis in her work. A successful novelist, she had long depended on her ability to imagine alternate worlds. But the deeper she went into silence, the more her fiction eluded her. “This gave me the idea,” she explains, “that there might be something profoundly different between the silence of the hermits and the silence of creative artists.” The first kind of silence requires an emptying out of the self in order to be receptive to God; the other fortifies the self in order to be inventively godlike. “Silence has no narrative,” she concludes. “Silence intensifies sensation, but blurs the sense of time.” Building on this speculation, Maitland’s ambitious, wide-ranging book investigates the varied nature of creativity and dives into considerations of both madness and joy.
Maitland introduces the reader to the Great Chthonic Terror of the earliest human societies — “that the dark may swallow the light. . . . That the cold will triumph; and we will all be dead.” This was not an abstract fear; people invented rituals to urge the sun to rise every day. Now, she argues, that terror has shifted its shape, becoming symbolic: “We are terrified of silence and so we banish it from our lives.” This, I think she is saying, is why we cling, for example, to a sort of magical thinking about the impending ecological disaster; we are in noisy denial. It’s incontrovertible that if more of us cared to experience the natural world unmediated by anything at all — to simply sit, quietly, open to its sublime beauty — we might take better care of it. But that cherishing of her surroundings is only one of the many pleasures Maitland finds in her new solitary life.
This is not a silent book, intimate and generous as it is. We even hear Maitland strike matches to light her cigarettes under a canopy of stars. To my mind, it’s an open question whether reading can be part of any experience of silence. Nor did Maitland’s book leave me speechless. Instead, I found myself arguing, conversing, exclaiming at every page. I wanted to be with her every step of the way. And I can hardly wait to see what comes next from this marvelous writer, thinker and seeker. I only hope it isn’t . . . silence.
Alan Davidson is the founder of ThroughYourBody.com and the author Body Brilliance: Mastering Your Five Vital Intelligences, the #1 bestselling Health & Welness book and winner of two National Book-of-the-Year awards.
Alan is also the author of the Free report “Body Breakthroughs for Life Breakthroughs: How to Peak Your Physical, Emotional, Mental, Moral, and Spiritual IQs for a Sensational Life” available at www.throughyourbody.com
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