Guest post by Kindred Spirits
Silence has a role to play in various spiritual traditions. “The Big Silence” was an interesting and well-done documentary about silence. A description of the documentary lies below.
The Big Silence documentary (~3 hours long; used to be free to view, but now only a preview is available at this site):
Abbot Christopher Jamison, a Benedictine monk, believes that he can teach five ordinary people the value of silent meditation, as practiced by monks in monasteries, so they can make it part of their everyday lives.
He sets up a three-month experiment to test out whether the ancient Christian tradition of silence can become part of modern lives.
Christopher brings the five volunteers to his own monastery, Worth Abbey, before sending them to begin a daunting eight days in complete silence at a specialist retreat center.
Journey with the volunteers into the interior space that time in silence reveals. They encounter anger, frustration and rebellion, but finally find their way to both personal and spiritual revelation.
Will they make silent contemplation a part of their everyday lives? How much will their lives be changed by what they have discovered in their time in silence? And will Abbot Christopher’s hope, that they will discover a new belief in God, be fulfilled?
Maggie Ross: “The Big Silence”
Maggie Ross, (pen name of Martha Reeves), is a 30+ year professed solitary in the Anglican Faith. For many years, she spent half the year in remote Alaska, and the other half of the year teaching Theology at Oxford. She’s written a handful of books, and also writes a blog.
It [‘The Big Silence’ on the BBC] was a well-done series, I thought; but Jamieson’s sadness and puzzlement at the end about people’s alienation to putting what they had found in silence into traditional words and church structures seemed the only disingenuous moment. He was right on when he pointed to the relationship between silence and the evolution of doctrine, but oblivious of how those doctrines have been divorced from silence, twisted, and used to beat people up, keeping them immature and dependent, narrowing the parameters of what it might possibly mean to be human.
How can Jamieson stand the conflict between what deep silence teaches and what being a Roman Catholic forces you to assent to? Does he just glaze over, tune out, the way so many RC monastics do when confronted by contradiction (as opposed to paradox)?
I’m a professed religious and my sympathies are all with the alienated. Organized religion has become so embarrassing that it’s not surprising people don’t want to be associated with it. I’m not willing to use the fossilized language, either, not unless it’s ringed about with explanations and caveats and provisionality. Some of it can still be useful, but only as it is understood in its wider relationship to silence and as it is restored to its relationship to silence and, most of all, as it yields to silence.
Another example of Ross being highly critical of organized religion can be found in her blog post Stammering in the Dark.
After watching the documentary, think of what the participant’s experiences were, and how those experiences were related to Christian doctrine. Did their experiences directly concern or support church doctrines? Or were their experiences of a more generic feeling of peace, that doesn’t support any particular church doctrine or theology? Imagine if each of the five participants had a different religious and cultural background, and what conclusions they would come to from the experiences that they had, e.g., would a Hindu see Jesus, or Krishna? Would a Buddhist see Jesus or Buddha?
We’ll continue with Maggie Ross in the next installment…