He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.
1 Kings 19:11-13
There are two kinds of silence.
For years I’ve called them The Bad Silence, and The Good Silence. The Bad Silence is the one where things are quiet outside of your body, when the air of the room is still and the streets are empty, but your mind is ablaze with the terrible wildfire of thinking. The Good Silence is the other way around, an inner pool the surface of which is glassy and untouched even by the tyranny of sound. Sometimes, like little golden threads running through the tapestry, you will get moments where both inner and outer life become a bell suspended in song and you sink like a pebble through the echoes, becoming a tiny flower blooming in the cracks of Time’s mossy grave, shifting only with the wind. But these perfect things are very rare silences.
I’ve just come back from an Advent retreat. Scouring the rust from my heart in the hush before the light. Sweeping the ash from the bare hearth of myself, making ready a place for Midwinter fire. My soul has been a small, freezing place for a long time, an empty cell where I mark time on the walls until I am released back into the world or death, I haven’t really minded which. You become used to the numbness of your limbs, the days that pass through old glass smeared with a wan and watery sun, the taste of grief in your mouth. Grief: that tall jar of black fluid you have tried to keep steady in your head, but you stumbled, or it cracked, and little by little all that brackish stuff seeps through your skull, dyeing the very tissues of your brain, turning your tongue into a rotten leaf. Grief, that cold bone in your throat.
This beaten-down version of my soul was not ready to encounter a Perfect Silence. It was not ready to be led to a great truth. This time last month I wrote with the last spark of the fire within, hoping against hope that it would spread to the brittle kindling of my body, but it didn’t. The wind was too strong, too bitter, and the walls too thin. The embers closed their orange eyes and died.
After this, an Advent retreat was not what I felt like doing. I felt like walking into the ocean, but I got on the minibus and walked through the doors of the house instead, and found myself adrift in a different sea. Washed clean by the calm waves of solitude, drinking from a vast and deep body of the living water of silence. I felt it around me when I read by the fire, or pressed the ice forming in the gardener’s bucket with tentative fingers. I washed my hands with it before God during the Sacrament of Reconciliation, stood in the chill sunlight falling on the frosted grass of the orchard after, and felt something walk out of my body. Something bowed and shambling and stinking, like a smoking corpse. I watched it walk away through the fallen apples like an old guest who had clung to the cramped rooms of my soul like mould finally leaving the house.
Silence rushed back into me, a quick tide of it, pooling in the stained and empty space where all that charred flesh had been. It ran through the hearth and took the soot with it – because sometimes it is better to build a new fire than to try and relight an old one. It settled upon my aching shoulders like bleak Midwinter snow, like starlight falling on the rooftops in the shadow of Jerusalem, and it was perfect, perfect, perfect.