Tue | Sep 25, 2018

Silence: The spiritual practice of the ages

Published:Sunday | February 14, 2016 | 12:00 AMDr Glenville Ashby
Mother Teresa
Saint Ignatius of Loyola

We need to find God, and He cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature - trees, flowers, grass - grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence. We need silence to be able to touch souls." - Mother Teresa.

Modernity has brought with it many advantages. The ubiquitous buzz of technology has eased some of life's challenges and created a global family.

We can bond with strangers thousands of miles away and be privy to news in remote parts of the world in real time. More important, advances in medicine, science, and just about every field of endeavour, are nothing short of incredulous.

But this new reality has come with a high price. We have become slaves to the allure of technology, bombarded by its stimuli, and addicted to its wonderment. We find ourselves psychologically hamstrung, and unable to function without our new 'arrangement'.

Amid the noise, we risk losing our spiritual identity and oneness with nature. The $64,000 question is: Are we able to pause for a while, reflect, listen, and learn from the silence within?

We, like the savants and mahatmas of yesteryear, can garner wisdom from stillness and quietude. Silence opens the door to spiritual growth. It leads to what many call 'moksha' or illumination, and is the foundation of the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Society in the 16th century.




These exercises can be likened to any physical endeavour. Arduous work, perseverance, and patience are essentials towards mastery. To draw closer to God and experience his transcendence, Saint Ignatius recommended a 30-day (spiritual) furlough, armed with specific modes of contemplation, meditation, introspection, and prayer, under the tutelage of a spiritual director.

Saint Ignatius was unequivocal as he inscribed the principle of the exercises. "Man was created for this end: to praise, reverence and serve the Lord his God, and, by this means, arrive at eternal salvation. I come from God; I belong to God; I am destined to God."

He was mindful, though, that we are not all capable of fully performing these exercises. "Let the nature, the length, the number of exercises be always suited to the age, the capacity, the health, and the goodwill of the person in retreat.

"Let no one be burdened. Let each one do only what he can with profit ... without ever passing the limits fixed for him by a prudent director enlightened by experience."

However, Saint Ignatius later chided the spiritually sick who are unwilling to take the prescribed spiritual medicine, or those who cherry-pick the remedies for spiritual rehabilitation.

And the retreatant is asked to contemplate on his present station in life, the life of Christ, His passion, and His resurrection.

During these long periods of silent contemplation, the retreatant is expected to reflect on the state of the dying, and the grave, for obvious reasons. What better way to awaken the truth of our frailty and powerlessness against Providence?

The Saint emphasised: "To die is to bid farewell to your titles and your rank; farewell to your pleasures, farewell to your friends ... farewell to the world forever." He rhetorically asked, "Are we prepared?"

The exercises can prove rigid, and demand a committed pursuant. Six hours of meditation, partitioned throughout the day and night, and a vow of silence save for counsel by one's spiritual director. Therein are also rules for temperance, the distribution of alms and examination of our conscience. But it is Saint Ignatius' advice on prayer that is worthy of note.

"Recite some vocal payer and rest successively on the words composing it as long as we feel taste and devotion ... . Dwell on the words 'Our Father', meditate on them as long as they furnish you with thoughts, affections ... . When the time comes to conclude, recite the rest of the prayer without stopping ..."

The key to successfully completing this undertaking rests on our affections, or the ability to feel, visualise, and merge with our prayers.

The role of the imaginative powers is not spared. We are asked to speak to God with raw honesty, as if He were before us. By the end of the retreat, we can "listen" without suggestions of the flesh, and our power of discernment is heightened.




Some have argued that Saint Ignatius, a soldier-turned-priest in the Basque country, has infected his spiritual guidelines with the austerity and inflexibility of his military background and that his cosmic duality is too simplistic and archaic for modern-day thinkers.

While this may be true on some level, it does not sully the authenticity and relevance of its core principles.

The spiritual benefits of silence cannot be circumvented, for solitude is the cornerstone of illumination. We hear of Saint Bernard's and Moses' retreat and, "it was in retreat of Carmel that Elias received double spirit; it was in retreat in the desert that John the Baptist received the plenitude of the Spirit of God ... and solitude was witness of the vigils of Jesus," wrote Saint Ignatius.

Admittedly, his exercises are steeped in Catholic dogma, abounding with Marianism and Hagiography. This may prove a distraction, even an excuse by detractors of the Church to dismiss his entire work.

How unfortunate, for the fundamentals of Saint Ignatius' work - penance, self-abnegation and colloquy (unfettered dialogue with the divine) - are universally applicable.

Today, many are discovering or revisiting Saint Ignatius, even modifying his teachings for modern times. No longer are 30 days mandatory, or total isolation a requirement.

But silence is never compromised for it remains the enduring, irrevocable path of savants, saints, and prophets of all religions yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

- Dr Ashby is the author of Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend and Bridge to Enlightenment and Creativity. Feedback: glenvilleashby@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby.