Silent sojourner


Sara Maitland: A Book of Silence. Granta, 2009. ISBN: 9781847081513. Online

Sara Maitland: A Book of SilenceSilence, according to Sara Maitland, starkly reveals the truth that Christianity is more about emptying oneself and opening the self to God than it is about fulfilling the self.

Maitland feels compelled to live in greater silence, and this book details her journey to learn what silence is through reading about it and experiencing it in different settings. Her reading covers not only traditional Christian accounts of silence, but also the secular accounts of extreme isolation and silence, for example, Richard Byrd alone in a tent in the Arctic winter, or Alexander Selkirk frantically building fences on his desert island.

Maitland's overview of the Christian desert tradition and the traditions of silence in Buddhism is comprehensive, and sometimes wry. Why did the wily Bishop Athanasius put so many words into the mouth of the nearly always silent Anthony in writing his history of the hermit? Answer: because Athanasius needed a mouthpiece for orthodoxy, and he pressed even those who didn't talk into service.

Maitland feels that our culture devalues silence. Our individualism and consumerist need to fulfil ourselves has crowded silence out. So resistance of friends to her plans has itself to be resisted with deeper understanding and the careful explanations in this book.

Maitland worries that we no longer respond to appalling tragedy with silence. We chatter and make busy work when loved ones die. We even applaud in funerals.

She spends six weeks on Skye, a bleak island off the Scottish coast, noting the principal experiences that silence brings: greater intensity of seeing, hearing, smelling; a breaking down of the boundaries of the self; a joy she names 'jouissance'; and hearing sounds and voices.

Maitland then travels to Israel for a desert experience of silence, where she discovers the lassitude and undoing of a sense of time, both of which open her out to an experience of God.

Her third planned experience of silence was in the high country near her childhood home in southwest Scotland. These walks give Sara Maitland a different experience of solitude, because high country below the snow-line is noisy and the scenery sharp and spectacular. All this stimulates clear memories, which she polishes into anecdotes. This experience of silence actually reinforces the sense of ego.

She reflects on these two contrasting experiences: the desert silence helps her to pray; the mountain solitude helps her to put experience into words. The latter 'silence' is the solitude the artist claims, especially since the Romantic poets gave us the image of the artist as a hero journeying into the self to bring out new creations for the reader or viewer.

Maitland knows she needs these two silences — the desert and the mountain — to fulfil her twin callings to pray and to write. She wonders whether they are compatible with each other. Can she have both, or must she relinquish one or the other?

She buys and rebuilds an isolated shepherd's hut, again in southwest Scotland, to learn how to find both silence and solitude for both prayer and writing.

The contrast Maitland draws between emptying self, the classic Christian goal, and fulfilling the self, the modern Enlightenment project, is provocative.

If silence opens us more fully to the Other then it entails a necessary breaking down of the boundaries of the self. This is one of the problems that Maitland says our modern society has with silence: it fears the disintegration of the self. Maitland argues persuasively that holding on too tightly to the self is madness, because it prevents us from being accessible to God.

Like Maitland, this reviewer feels a vocation to write. Since retirement, and through my deeper immersion in the Franciscan Third Order, I am also rediscovering my vocation to pray. Sara Maitland's book, and the prism of silence she explores, prod me deeper into prayer and more thoughtfully, less frenetically, into writing.

Ted WithamTed Witham is a retired Anglican priest, whose poetry and book reviews have been published in Indigo and Studio. Ted is currently Minister Provincial of the Anglican Franciscan Third Order, and keeps alive a strong interest in all forms of spirituality. Ted lives in the south-west of Western Australia with his wife Rae and cocker spaniel Jeannie.

Topic tags: Sara Maitland: A Book of Silence. Granta, 2009. ISBN: 9781847081513



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Existing comments

Being in the south-west of Western Australia is to enjoy the sound of silence in close communication with God and his creation. I wonder how can we share this wealth with the people of Sri Lanka or Burmese refugees.

Ray O'Donoghue | 13 November 2009  

Thanks Ted for a thoughtful review of perhaps the type of book we really need. Perhaps I betray my own need in so saying, but life often seems far too hectic. What was it that Lacordaire once said about an unreflected life being not worth living? So thanks Ted for sharing with us a little of the fruits of your prayer and writing.

Ern Azzopardi | 13 November 2009  

Thank you for reviewing Sara Maitland's book, I look forward very much to reading it as she is a wonderfully creative author who often approaches subjects from unexpected directions. I can thoroughly recommend her other books, especially her short story collection called 'Angel and me.'

Sandra Houghton | 15 November 2009  

From the review, Sarah Maitland's thoughts seem to gel completely with the teaching of Benedictines John Main and Laurence Freeman on Christian meditation. At our recent national meditation retreat with Laurence in Sydney the silence and stillness were truly special, awakening our mindfulness and our experience of God in the 'inner room.'

John O'Donnell | 15 November 2009  

I became so excited on reading Ted Witham's review of this book as I realised that it very much reflects and affirms aspects of what I am experiencing in my own life at present: ie '... a necessary breaking down of the boundaries of the self.' I have lived alone for the last eight years now, ever since my youngest daughter was killed in a car accident. I seem to be by temperament anyway someone who is 'comfortable' with being alone although, conversely, one of my greatest joys is 'connecting' with others at a deep level.

For some years now I have been reading widely on Benedictine Spirituality and practice a form of prayer called 'Centering Prayer,' both on my own and in a group. I am a 'hobby' writer of essays, poetry and short stories. This interest has been a part of my life since about twelve years of age. Most of all at this stage of my life I want to come to grips with praying, writing and solitude. How fortuitous to have found Ted Witham's review of Sara Maitland's book (which I now plan to read, of course). It is always good to find a fellow traveller, in fact two fellow travellers. Thank you Ted Witham.

Helga Jones | 07 December 2009  

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