Review of “Silence: A User’s Guide (Volume 1: Process)” by Maggie Ross

silenceSilence: A User’s Guide. Volume 1: Process by Maggie Ross (DLT, 2014).

Silence: that moment between phone calls, when one can achieve the next task, or is it the stillness when you sit at your desk at the start of a new day? Sometimes it is a moment in church where all is hushed, breathless even, as we pray.

Some people carry silence within them, so absorbed in themselves, or their own little world that they can sit in silence in the midst and hubbub of a family meal or walk in a crowd, unaware of the conversations raging about them.

A friend of mine finds silence impossible, and carries her iPod even on retreat so that her mind can always be filled with some sort of noise, worship of course, and not exposed to the empty noise of silence.

Silence is a rich gift for me: moments without interruption when I can relax into being; times of prayer with others where words are not necessary, evenings beside the fire in company and in quiet, these are what I long for in the busyness of most days.

This book is written by a lover of silence, who lives as a solitary in a particular calling and at a particular place. You might find it interesting to visit her blog.

You can imagine that I was glad to be asked to review this book, and looked forward to reading it, and so I did. It has kept me company on seven dog walks along the canal in Wolverhampton, and reminded my inner being of the delights and depths of this gift of silence. My interaction with the book has driven me back into the quiet of prayer space, and given me confidence again in being alone in quiet.

My first response to my reading was one of surprise and disappointment. The start is so very noisy and full of judgement about the noise in which the western world just now tends to live. If I had been less drawn to being I would have put the book down, being found wanting in silence, and over-committed to the ways of the world. Indeed throughout the book the author shows little patience or compassion with the fate of most of us who are children of our time. I began to wonder if the life of a solitary has been chosen because the rest of the world is simply not up to the mark by which Ross has seen fit to live and think. Her impatience with modern translations of ancient texts is likewise loud, but she does not have the time to learn how to translate them better herself. My academic expertise is not sufficient to allow me to comment properly upon her use of the church fathers, but I enjoy her train of thought. I too find value in beholding: in looking upon the beauty and grace in God and being present to the divine without comment or judgement.

So much misunderstanding is caused by use of the same words to mean different things – not intentionally, but as much in the way that you and I may call a thing red, without knowing that we share a common experience of red, or that we see it as the same colour at all. There is no common reference except an agreement to agree. So, for myself with this book. Words are used to mean specific things, and I fear that I do not always share the interpretation of their meaning correctly. I find the insistence on paradox alarming. I was taught many years ago to distrust paradox in the way that I had come to understand it, and have found other language and places in my being to hold together in tension two apparently opposing experiences such as the immanence and transcendence of God. Probably partly because in my living I have chosen to follow a more narrative than confrontational or oppositional style. Ross confronts the need for paradox aggressively and upholds the principle in a way which I have had to circumvent rather then embrace in appreciating this book. Her tirade against spiritual direction as many currently experience it could be enough to make many practitioners of the discipline put down the book half read before they can open themselves to the meat of it.

I appreciated the discussion between magic and sacrament in the Eucharist, and deriving from that an awareness of the difference between existing with a thing, and using something for one’s own ends.

The lasting gift of this book to me is the remembrance of beholding, of simply being present before God. Lovers of silence are always going to be a minority group, most especially as we live within an anxious culture approaching the end of its time. There are few who can sit or stand in silence being loved and waiting on the Beloved. I think that these are the people who, living in God, sustain the world in a godly awareness, and so in a place that longs for human flourishing. They don’t need to make a noise about what they are doing. A whisper is heard, even if not attended to in the way that we might like. To such patient readers I commend this book, and look forward to the second volume.

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