One cannot really explore solitude without also entering into silence. As far the spiritual disciplines goes, I have always considered silence and solitude as part of the same practice, like two hands washing each other. As such, if I am to recover from my SDD - my solitude deficit disorder - I will also have to reclaim my right to silence.
So then, silence.
Maybe the best way to emphasize the need for silence in our lives is to consider the alternative, a life which Merton identifies as 'an uninterrupted flow of words which is finally silenced by death.' Elsewhere, he says the following: 'If our life is poured out in useless words, we will never hear anything, will never become anything, and in the end, because we have said everything before we had anything to say we shall be left speechless at the moment of our great decision.’
Silence should not to be seen as a practice reserved for introverts, artists and thinkers. It is first of all a revolt against the uninterrupted and never-ending flow of words which so easily control and define our lives, and as such it is both necessary and helpful for all kinds of people regardless of our individual temperaments and preferences. In an age where the uninterrupted flow of words have gone both digital and viral by means of social media and smart-phones, we will be well advised to listen to the ancient wisdom of those who have gone before us, warning us to not satiate our souls with noise and words.
Many people fear silence. In the absence of words, noise and activity we are left with our own naked selves, and very few of us really know how to handle this kind of exposure. Isn't it ironic that we have become masters at building our online personas, displaying these polished versions of ourselves for the rest of the world to see, but we find it difficult or impossible to simply sit silently and content in our own company? We try and escape ourselves by hiding behind noise and words as well as the image we are trying to uphold, yet in doing so we only become further estranged from ourselves and our neighbours.
In order to become authentic human beings, we have to risk becoming individuals, and for this we need silence. I know there is a lot of talk these days about the importance of tribes or communities and the dangers of individualism. I get that. But any healthy community consists not out of conformists but out of people with a freely chosen (and ever evolving) identity. This kind of authentic individual identity has nothing in common with the facade of individualism sold to us by mass media and pop culture which, if we are really honest with ourselves, is really just conformity masquerading as the choice of the consumer. To be and become an authentic individual, I mustn't simply have the power to exercise what kind of car I want to drive or brand of cereal I want to eat, I must also be free to choose not to drive a car or eat cereal to begin with. In short, I need the freedom to be my own person.
Silence, therefore, is not simply about emptying one's mind and vocabulary. The purpose of silence is to push back the many voices and opinions that seek to attach themselves to identities so that we may listen and respond to the communication of God concerning our lives, and in doing so to awake to our own uniqueness and individuality. From this point of view silence is not about nothingness but about receptivity, birth and fruitfulness. As such one of the greatest gifts people of silence can give to people whose lives are cluttered by noise and activity is the invitation to convert to silence.
In a world where there are so many competing ideologies and ideas about reality being championed by people who stand to gain more influence and wealth to the extent that people buy into their idea of the world, maybe the true servant or the true prophet is not the person who shows his or her neighbour what to think but how to think. More than this, to show his or her neighbour how to perceive, how to discern and how to have the courage to respond to the flow that is birthed from their own inner silence.
The alternative is to live our lives according to a noisy and deadening rhythm defined by a never ending flow of words where, in the end, our lives are shaped not so much by the truths our own souls needs but by the voices of those who manage to shout the loudest.