A Time for Peace

The question is what is the way to the beginning of peace?

The philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote, “The unhappiness of a person resides in one thing, to be unable to remain peacefully in a room.” It is silence and solitude that bring us face to face with ourselves and the inner wars we must win if we are ever to become truly whole, truly at peace. Silence gives us the opportunity we need to raise our hearts and minds to something above ourselves, to be aware of a spiritual life in us that is being starved out by noise pollution, to still the raging of our limitless desires. It is a call to the Cave of the Heart where the vision is clear and the heart is centered on something worthy of it.

There are some things in life that deserve to be nourished simply for their own sake. Art is one, music is another, good reading is a third, but the power of the contemplative vision is the greatest of them all. Only those who come to see the world as God sees the world, only those who see through the eyes of God, ever really see the glory of the world, ever really approach the peaceable kingdom, ever find peace in themselves.

Silence is the beginning of peace. It is in silence that we learn that there is more to life than life seems to offer. There is beauty and truth and vision wider than the present and deeper than the past that only silence can discover. Going into ourselves we see the whole world at war within us and begin to end the conflict. To understand ourselves, then, is to understand everyone else as well.

There are two major obstacles, however, to a development of a spirituality of peace. The fear of silence and solitude loom like cliffs in the human psyche. Noise protects us from confronting ourselves, but silence speaks the language of the heart. Silence and solitude are what really bring us into contact both with ourselves and with others. Deep down inside of us reside, in microcosm, all the human hopes and fears, the struggles to control them, the hope to set them free, the peace that comes when we have confronted both the best and the worst in ourselves and found them acceptable.

Silence requires a respect for solitude, however, and solitude is even more frightening than quiet. One of life’s greatest lessons is that solitude and loneliness are not the same thing. Loneliness is the sign that something is lacking. The purpose of solitude, on the other hand, is to bring us home to the center of ourselves with such serenity that we could lose everything and, in the end, lose nothing of the fullness of life at all.

Quiet has become a phantom memory in this culture. Some generations among us have had no experience of it at all. It has been driven out by noise pollution that is endemic, invasive, clamorous. Everywhere. Everyplace. Not simply in New York City. In Small Town, USA, it is blaring every hour of the day. There is Muzak in the elevators and public address systems in the halls and people standing next to you in the hardware store talking loudly on cellular phones and everywhere, everywhere—in offices and restaurants and kitchens and bedrooms—the ubiquitous television spewing talk devoid of thought while people pay no attention at all and shout above it about other things. There are loudspeakers in boats now so the lake is not safe. There are rock concerts in the countryside now so the mountains are not safe. There are telephones in bathrooms now so the shower is not safe. Corporate offices are now beehives of cubicles, cheek by jowl. We don’t think anymore; we simply listen. The problem is that we are so deluged with sound that we are accustomed to listening only to things outside of ourselves, however vacuous the message, however pointless the talk.

Silence is the lost art of this society. Clamor and struggle have replaced it. Silence, of course, was once a thing to be dealt with in the human condition. Silence was a given. Men went with the flocks up a lonely mountain for weeks and had to learn to be at peace with themselves. Women worked in the kitchens of the world grinding corn and plucking chickens, deep in thought, attuned to the things around them. Children picked in the fields in long, separated rows, learning young to hear birds and wind and water, weaving their fancies from the materials of the earth. Silence was a friendly part of life, not a deprivation, not a fearsome place to be.

People knew that the silence in which they lived as a matter of course was anything but empty. On the contrary. It was full of the self and all its clamor. Silence had things to teach, and silence was a stern taskmaster, full of angels to be wrestled with and demons to be mollified.

Silence stood demanding and somber waiting for attention. The substance of silence, you see, is the awakening soul and that, all the great spiritual writers knew, is something that shallow hearts assiduously avoid. It is one thing to arm wrestle the demons outside of us. It is entirely another to brave the adversaries within. But dare them we must or die only half finished, only partially human, only somewhat grown.

The desert monastics of the third century were very clear about the role of silence in the development of a mature spirituality.

“Elder, give me a word,” the seeker begged for direction.

And the holy one said, “My word to you is to go into your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”

The answers are within you, in other words. And so are the questions. Your questions. The questions no one can ask of you but you. Everything else in the spiritual life is mere formula, mere exercise. It is the questions and answers that rant within each of us that, in the end, are all that matter. Then we get to know ourselves as no one else knows us. Then we blush at what we see. And lose our righteousness. And come to peace.

For those who cringe from silence like the plague, fearful of its weight, cautious of its emptiness, the shock that comes with the revelations of silence goes deep. The heaviness and emptiness we feared give way very quickly to turmoil and internal pressure. Silence enables us to hear the cacophony inside ourselves. Being alone with ourselves is a demanding presence. We find very quickly that either we must change or we shall surely crumble under the weight of our own dissatisfaction with ourselves, under the awareness of what we could be but are not, under the impulse of what we want to be but have failed to become. Under the din is the raw material of the soul. Under the din is self-knowledge, is self-acceptance, is peace.

Silence does more than confront us with ourselves, however. Silence makes us wise. Face-to-face with ourselves we come very quickly, if we listen to the undercurrents that are in contention within us, to respect the struggles of others. Silence teaches us how much we have yet to learn. Or, as we get older, silence perhaps reminds us too that there are qualities that we may never with confidence attain and that will war for our souls till the day we die. Then face-to-face with our struggles and our inadequacies, there is no room in us for mean judgments and narrow evaluations of others. Suddenly, out of silence, comes the honesty that tempers arrogance and makes us kind.

Because we have come to know ourselves better, we can only deal more gently with others.

Knowing our own struggles, we reverence theirs. Knowing our own failures, we are in awe of their successes, less quick to condemn, less likely to boast, less intent on punishing, less certain of our certainties, less committed to our heady, vacuous, and untried convictions. Then silence becomes a social virtue.

Make no doubt about it, the ability to listen to another, to sit silently in the presence of God, to give sober heed and to ponder is the nucleus of the spirituality of peace. It may, in fact, be what is most missing in a century saturated with information, sated with noise, smothered in struggle, but short on reflection. The Word we seek is speaking in the silence within us. Blocking it out with the static of nonsense day in and day out, relinquishing the spirit of silence, anesthetizes the heart in a noise-numbed world and destroys our peace.
An ancient wrote: Once upon a time a disciple asked the elder, “How shall I experience my oneness with creation?”
And the elder answered, “By listening.”
The disciple pressed the point: “But how am I to listen?”
And the elder taught, “Become an ear that pays attention to every single thing the universe is saying. The moment you hear something you yourself are saying, stop.”
Peace will come when we stretch our minds to listen to the noise within us that needs quieting and the wisdom from outside ourselves that needs to be learned. Then we will have something of value to leave the children besides hate, besides war, besides turmoil. Then peace will come. Then we will be able to say with Kazantzakis, “I fear nothing; I hope for nothing.”

Make no doubt about it, the ability to listen to another, to sit silently in the presence of God, to give sober heed and to ponder is the nucleus of the spirituality of peace. It may, in fact, be what is most missing in a century saturated with information, sated with noise, smothered in struggle, but short on reflection. The Word we seek is speaking in the silence within us. Blocking it out with the static of nonsense day in and day out, relinquishing the spirit of silence, anesthetizes the heart in a noise-numbed world and destroys our peace.

An ancient wrote: Once upon a time a disciple asked the elder, “How shall I experience my oneness with creation?”

And the elder answered, “By listening.”

The disciple pressed the point: “But how am I to listen?”

And the elder taught, “Become an ear that pays attention to every single thing the universe is saying. The moment you hear something you yourself are saying, stop.”

Peace will come when we stretch our minds to listen to the noise within us that needs quieting and the wisdom from outside ourselves that needs to be learned. Then we will have something of value to leave the children besides hate, besides war, besides turmoil. Then peace will come. Then we will be able to say with Nikos Kazantzakis, “I fear nothing; I hope for nothing, I am free.”

—from For Everything There Is a Season by Joan Chittister (Orbis Books) and Joan Chittister:Essential Writingsselected by Mary Lou Kownacki and Mary Hembrow Snyder (Orbis Books)