By Rev. Paul Graves
Dear Katie, Claire and Andy,
Wow! It’s been 21 years this month since I first wrote a “Grampa Letter” to you, Katie, one month after your birth. Taped to my computer is my favorite photo of you, shortly before you turned 7. You sit silently next to Periwinkle Creek in Albany, Oregon, a tiara on your head. Your pensive, beautiful face hides your silent thoughts.
This photo reminds me that silence has so many faces. I am drawn to your silence there. It speaks clearly, even though your thoughts are yours alone in that particular moment. Silence can be mysterious for observers. Sometimes the content of silence shouts clearly.
I’ve seen each of you usually verbal kids in moments of personal silence as you’ve grown. Sometimes I see your silence was a big pout, or anger you didn’t want to express, or sadness for being scolded, or grief at losing something you treasured. Circumstances can often identify our silences.
But we don’t always know why another person is silent. Even when we do, our own silence is often the best gift we can offer another person. Recently, I’ve coined another mantra that makes sense to me: “When words get in the way of what we want to say, silence is a thoughtful option.”
I subscribe to a bi-weekly magazine called The Christian Century. In the most recent issue was a collection of short stories written by subscribers, all about silence. Each person’s experience of silence was unique to the circumstances, yet all reflected a sacred silence. A holy ground silence.
Grampa asks you to think about some times when you want, actually need, silence in your life – even for only a few minutes. We all do. We need to take deep breaths when our hearts start racing, or our heads ache in overload. Silence can become a cool drink of water to our parched or overloaded spirits.
Nearly every day, I am reminded that silence is a sacred moment. Maybe one reason it is so special is that most people – including you and me – aren’t very good at being silent. We be overwhelmed with noises from everywhere outside us, and from our competing inner voices.
As I watched immigrant children sitting silent in cages on our southern borders, I could only imagine what grief and fear their silence betrayed. As I read stories of domestic violence victims silently cowering in a bedroom, I can only imagine what being a victim silenced by fear is like.
So many negative silences rip up the landscape of most every person’s life, kids. But I must affirm that even the more horrendous reasons for silence do contain a seed of the sacred within them. In those silences, we can experience a glimpse of mystery and wonder.
Sacred silences are the “still small voice” that tickles our imaginations, caresses our internal curiosities and moves us to push beyond our self-made limits. Sacred silence is not for the timid, kids. It urges us to stay within our own spirits but only for a time of incubation.
For silence to become sacred, it can remind and must remind us, that life is so much bigger, grander, more mysterious than just us. Silence may be imposed on us from the outside or inside. Still, its sacredness calls us to not only close our mouths, but release our fears of whatever grips us.
There is great and healing power in silence. If we cringe in silence, fear has the power. When we choose silence as our companion, fear is diminished and hope is ignited.
The Rev. Paul Graves serves as the chair for the Council on Older Adult Ministries for the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.