Silent Presence in the Face of Suffering

A painting by Odilon Redon which depicts a pale woman with brown hair, gazing downwards with two fingers over her lips. Her expression looks concerned or distressed. She is framed by an oval of white/cream paint.
Odilon Redon, Le Silence, Wikimedia Commons

Part of the work of the church in the world is to care for those who suffer. Thus, it is asked of the Body of Christ to grow our capacity to do so with wisdom. However, in the face of suffering we are often undone; we don’t know what to say or do, we feel our own brokenness, and we feel afraid. But what if it isn’t our capacity to do or say the right thing which is the crucial offering of the church in our time? What if silence can actually speak louder than words?

When I was training to be a counsellor I had a counsellor professor who was well practiced in Buddhist meditation. When I went to her office I would knock and she would greet me very briefly and then sit and wait in silence. All of her body language told me she was fully present and ready, but she was immovable, waiting within silence for me to emerge. And she was very content to do so for as long as necessary. It was extremely disconcerting, and the first few times I was flustered and jumpy and started talking a mile-a-minute, but she didn’t change her way of being, and slowly her confidence and peace did something; I slowed and felt the centre of me. Over time I learned to come in, sit, and take a moment to let the silent room and this silent woman give me a gift which in turn helped me to receive the teaching or the balm of healing that I needed in the moment. I remember nothing of what was said in those meetings, but I can still touch that silence.

Why was that silence powerful, and how was it healing and facilitative of my coming-to- be? Why is that kind of silence so hard to sustain (I have never been able to hold her depths of silence, yet)? This is a question that has stayed with me as I have lived a life within the life of the church, whose task it is to be near to those who suffer. It struck me more deeply when studying Julian of Norwich; she was an anchorite, enclosed in a room attached to a parish church, and she paid attention to and wrote about one vision of the suffering of Christ on the cross for almost fifty years. This time spent—the seclusion of this task, and the focus only on the face of Christ crucified and nothing else—is a form of silence which laces the pages of her writing. 650 years later they speak powerfully “All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Wherein lies this power?

The power lies in trust. My wise professor, and Julian, had a practiced confident trust which filled the room and the pages of the text that speaks through the ages. I cannot define the trusting silence that my professor practiced but it touched and resonated with the trust which Julian’s writing exudes. This kind of silence opens to more. It relinquishes control. It waits with, rather than takes over. It works within the still, rather than with the rush of fear; it dispels panic. The one willing to sit with a sufferer in this kind of potent, practiced silence trusts in the particularity of the person who is in front of them, and is willing to hold room for the inner life of the other, alone before God. Julian when she asked God about how “all would be well” for a particular friend of hers, learned that this was not a question that she could ask. It wasn’t hers to know; it was hers to hold in trust. A practitioner of this kind of silence learns to live in this trust. They do so because they come to know that the infinite has more possibility than our vision can perceive. They do so because they have come to know that the one who is seeking, and suffering, is held as precious within a good love, even when all appearances show it to be otherwise. This silent trust speaks without words that hope exists within every person and every situation.

Rowan Williams, one whom I believe is also adept at this kind of silence, once said: “Hope says that whether it turns out right or not, there’s never going to be a last word of pain, or loss, or failure so long as God remains God…Not that God is going to bring about a happy ending in this world, but that God’s work with, and God’s faithfulness to, people in the most acute, unreconciled kinds of suffering or loss is not under discussion.” This kind of hope can only be held within silence because it only exists in the more that we cannot ask or imagine.

So, how do we expand our capacity for trusting silence so that we the body of Christ can give this silence as gift within this world so thick with suffering? It is a hard-wrought, lifelong learning which is endangered by a world full of noise. I don’t think it is any wonder that my professor practiced meditation, nor that Julian was enclosed in an anchorhold. To trust silence, you must become deeply acquainted with it. Some are acquainted with it because of their own experience of suffering, and the presence they have met within it; they bring it with them within their healing wounds. Time with nature can also teach this gift, as the psalmist says:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork…
There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard;

yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

In the end, as Christians we are given the cross of Christ as the most potent teacher of trusting silence, we can lean into it in this time of Lent and pray that it will bear us and slowly teach us what we long to know.

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