Silence in the Family
By Albert S. Rossi, Ph.D.
Perhaps we can benefit from a few reflections on the silence in our childhood and the silence in our family life today. I’ll write from my own experience and, hopefully, prompt you to reflect upon your own.
As a teenage boy I used to love to sit in my rocking chair in my room, listening to the raindrops fall from the huge maple tree outside my window. The drops made a crashing sound as they hit the large tin roof below my second floor window. Some evenings I literally forced myself to sit awake in the dark, relishing the music of the raindrops. The sounds of silence those nights were peacegiving.
My childhood, as I suppose the childhood of most of my generation, was marked by many pleasant memories of silence. On our front porch, beneath the oversized tin roof, my dad and I sat regularly in the summer, swinging slowly on the suspended porch swing. We enjoyed the cool evening breeze while saying very little. We often sat that way because my dad often asked me “sit” with him awhile.
There is a strange absence of those moments in my family life today and, in all probability, in your family life today. Indeed, the world we live in has changed.
TWO KINDS OF SILENCE
Perhaps we can reflect a little on silence itself. There are two basic kinds of silence. The first is a pregnant, vibrant, fully alive silence. Certainly some of our most cherished moments occur when we are hugely attentive and alert, but silent, like the moment of receiving Christ in the Eucharist. The silent moments of gazing at a rose, or following an extremely intimate scene of a mother nursing her infant, simple can’t be squeezed into words. These special moments, and the more mundane moments like doing dishes alone or driving through neighborhood traffic can be life affirming silences, truly holy silences.
The opposite silence is the silence of death, the dark, dank air of mutual distrust or fear, paralyzing persons from talking. Those are the times of silence when husbands and wives, parents and children, friend and friend can’t seem to break through and say what is on their mind in a way that will be heard and received by the other. That is the state of sin, the state of the consequences of the fall of Adam and Eve, what we call the fallen state.
For many reasons, too varied to enumerate here, there is a notable lack of healthy silence today. In discussing this article with my wife she laughed and said, “You have a teenage daughter whose stereo is always on, who constantly talks on the phone, and who has a notepad on her desk saying, “Everybody is entitled to my opinion.” How can you expect to have silence in your family, or write an article on it.” Needless to say, my wife has a valid point. Perhaps what I, and some of you, need to do is raise our consciousness about the issue of silence in our lives.
For starters, we can ask ourselves how well disposed we are to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit with all the noise which surrounds us. It is possible that He beckons us but we simply can’t hear Him amid all the clatter. The issue is clearly a spiritual one.
The issue of silence correlates with the kind of personality type we Americans generally admire. For good or ill, surveys consistently demonstrate that we admire and even envy the extrovert personality. It might be said that many of us idolize extroversion. We are easily drawn to the persuasive speaker, the entertaining gossiper, the charming conversationalist, apart from what he or she may be saying. We place high priority on the skill of assertion and easily admire others who “take a back seat to no one.” All this extroversion and self-expression can easily militate against a desire and reverence for “holy silence.” We might be sobered by the line from the Lenten Triodion (p. 99). “The one who boasted (Pharisee) was deprived of blessing, while the other (Publican) kept silent and was counted worthy of gifts.”
The move away from silence has invaded leisure places as well. When I’ve taken my family camping I’ve been astounded at the number of families spending the evening inside the tent, eating campfire cooked food while watching the small TV they brought along. Hardly the way to hear the crickets sing to each other across the creek. Or, on the ski slopes I see a good number of skiers with headsets plugged into the handy walkman radio. Again, hardly the way to hear the sound of the falling snow on the frozen pine trees.
MAKING TIME FOR SILENCE
Perhaps the thing to do is ask some questions of ourselves and to share any beginnings we might make. Some questions are: Do we have the courage to ask someone else to sit on a porch swing with us just to “sit for awhile?” Do we have the ability to decide some specific time everyday to spend as “quiet time” alone, to be with God. Can we begin to discuss the role of silence in our lives as a prelude to reducing our noise level and bringing silence back?
Here are a couple beginnings we are trying in our family. We’ve taken to adding a moment of silence within our common prayer during supper. We’ve also tried, with mixed results, to not answer the phone during supper. Lastly, for big feasts such as Pascha and Christmas, we set aside a half hour explicitly to gather in the living room to be quiet for awhile and then discuss the feast. I’ll be the first to say these efforts are paltry but I’ll also be the first to say the small spaces of silence are delicious.
Perhaps what we need most of all is to pray. We need to pray to be given new and creative ways to recapture silent spaces and silent times within our family life. It may very well be that the quality of our surrendering to the Holy Spirit depends upon our desire and skill (ability) to face Him in silence as well as in dialog, in quiet as well as in tumult.