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Tag: The Big Silence

Kindred Spirits in a Pathless Land — Part Seven


Guest post by Kindred Spirits

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six

Continuing from the last installment regarding “The Big Silence” documentary, and the thoughts of Maggie Ross the 30+ year professed solitary and theologian…
Maggie Ross’ view of the relationship between silence and religion is shown in one of the essays in her book “Writing the Icon of the Heart.” According to Ross, the Church began losing its understanding of the role of silence during the 1400s, with disastrous consequences of not understanding the metaphors contained in the Bible. In particular, she’s a stickler for the use of the world “behold.” My understanding is that the types of experiences you get from extended silence, as demonstrated in “The Big Silence” documentary, are what “beholding” is about. (Although she also makes a distinction that most of the actual resulting of sitting in silence and beholding isn’t the “experiences,” but the changes that occur in the subconscious that one is not even directly aware of.)

You can read excerpts from the book online at the publisher’s website: Writing the Icon of the Heart, In Silence Beholding;

From the Introduction:

This silence is not the absence of noise; it is the vast interior landscape that invites us to stillness. At its heart, in our heart, it is the Other. Silence is not in itself religious, but to express the ineffable joys found in its depths is almost impossible without metaphors that frequently sound religious.

Silence and beholding coinhere, mutually informing one another.

Beholding, also, is not in itself religious; the primordial silence we engage in beholding is unnamable and not an object. Beholding leaves traces in its context and bestows an energy that is likewise often expressed in religious metaphor.

If the silence and the beholding that underlie these metaphors are not acknowledged and understood, we cannot interpret any of the texts that refer to the processes of the interior life, including Scripture. For example, in the Bible the imperative form of the word ‘behold’ has more than 1300 occurrences in Hebrew and Greek. After God has blessed the newly created humans, the first word he speaks to them directly is ‘Behold’. This is the first covenant, and the only one necessary; the later covenants are concessions to those who will not behold. In the NRSV the word ‘behold’ appears only 27 times in the Old Testament and the Apocrypha, and not at all in the New Testament.


One of the reasons for writing this book is to attempt to make more accessible the assumptions about silence and beholding that underlie the often arcane language of the interior life. To do this, I have often referred to key functions of the brain that are familiar to everyone. The paradox of intention is the one most critical to both silence and the religious metaphors that refer to it, and it turns up in these essays in a number of guises. I have illustrated some of these observations about the mind with quotations from Isaac of Nineveh, whose unsurpassed writing on the spiritual life is underpinned with a psychological acuity that was widespread among ancient and medieval writers. In many ways they knew more about the way the mind works than we do; some of the most basic insights—such as how we arrive at insight—have corollaries in recent neurobiological studies. This correlation does not ‘prove’ anything, however; it rather shows convergence at a cellular level with what had been common knowledge for millennia until about the middle of the 15th century, when the practice of silence was suppressed by the Western church.

A summary of some of the things that change in your life once you embrace silence, which she writes about in a blog post titled Ethics Issuing from Silence IV:

It is something of a shock the first time you walk into a big store and realize that not only is there nothing you want to buy but that most of what is on offer looks shabby and sad (not to mention a waste of natural resources). It isn’t a matter of like or dislike but rather of indifference and compassion.


You seek wisdom. Slogans, half-truth, political insincerity, being told what someone thinks you want to hear (he or she is often trained to manipulate instead of relate) as opposed of being told the truth becomes so naked that you wonder why anyone falls for these ploys—until you look at the faces around you and see the expressions of lostness, bewilderment and pain.

In short, there is good news and bad news. The “bad” news is that you will never again feel at home in the culture around you. The good news is that you now lead a life whose riches were once unimaginable.

Heaven Can’t Wait

And another example of Ross’ views, “Heaven Can’t Wait,” demonstrating that she doesn’t follow the “official” views regarding heaven and hell. The first part is excerpted below, with links to the remaining parts that are serialized on her website:

Heaven Can’t Wait, by Maggie Ross

“What do you think happens when we die?”

My eighty-year-old mother had the pedal to the metal. We were hurtling through spring sunshine and green hills, past the long sparkling lakes that mark the San Andreas fault just south of San Francisco. I was careful, very careful, not to express surprise at her question. Religion was an unmentionable subject in our family, a topic loaded with dangerous intimacy.

Her Edwardian outlook, capacity for denial, and inability ever to let go of anything were hallmarks of her life, yet she had grown old with unusual grace. Paradox was her métier: when facing a difficult choice she would worry and fret, twist and turn, her anxiety levels skyrocketing. But when the dreaded task could be avoided no longer, she would walk serenely through the jaws of whatever it was she had feared as if she were going to a garden party at the Palace of the Legion of Honor.

She liked to present herself as a grande dame but she had a wild streak, which I encouraged whenever it peeked out of its elegant shell. The car we were riding in was the consequence of one of these glimpses. Little did I know that it was a mild flutter compared to the escapades her envious, more conventional friends would recount after her death.

“What do you think happens when we die?” Her question was costly; how long had she been waiting for the right moment to ask it? What had provoked it? She was not requesting a story or a discussion but demanding a naked truth that would bridge the abyss between our conflicting perspectives. Underneath my mother’s studied nonchalance lay barely controlled terror; for me, death was as familiar as my own face.

I shifted slightly, as far as the bucket seat, restraints, and g-forces would allow, trying to respond as casually as she had asked the question, laughing a little at the existential and cosmic incongruities.

“My views on this subject are mindlessly simple. I think the universe is made of love and that when we die we are somehow drawn deeper into that love.”

Having obtained the information she desired, Mother withdrew into her own thoughts, and we traveled the rest of the way to Palo Alto in silence. I have no idea what she thought about heaven. She was an obsessively private person and not an abstract thinker. Until the last four nights of her life, when she had no other choice, this single exchange was as close as she would ever allow me to come. To ask for comfort would have been, for her, a serious moral lapse.”

Read all 5 parts at her blog:  Heaven Can’t Wait, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5

Kindred Spirits in a Pathless Land — Part Six


Guest post by Kindred Spirits

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five

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?

Now available free at Gloria TV:  The Big Silence 2012 (Reality TV meets Monasticism) Part 1Part 2Part 3. It appears that it can be watched for free on Amazon Prime too.

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.

Her summary of “The Big Silence” documentary can be found in a blog post titled No Place for Silence:

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…

Bruce Gerencser