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By Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
A Book of Silence
Counterpoint 10/09 Hardcover $25.00
Sara Maitland is the author of numerous works of fiction, including the Somerset Maugham Award-winning Daughters of Jerusalem and several nonfiction books about religion including A Big Enough God. She studied at Oxford and currently lives in Galloway. In this ambitious, richly textured, philosophical, and profoundly moving memoir, Maitland explores the many mysteries of silence.
Noise pollution is saturating every nook and cranny of our lives. But instead of making silence more appealing, this trend leads many to "feel that it is terrifying, dangerous to our mental health, a threat to our liberties and something to be avoided at all costs." Going against this perception, the author sees herself as a silence seeker. When she turned 50, her marriage ended, her youngest child had left home, she converted to Catholicism, and she began gardening. The latter gave her a way to work in silence and experience the quiet energy of growth. This is when she began to think of silence not as an absence or a lack but as a positive state or power. Her quest was animated by four intentions:
Maitland begins her encounter with silence by spending 40 days and nights alone in a house on the isolated Isle of Skye. The first thing she learns is this:
"The more and the longer you are silent the more you hear the tiny noises within the silence, so that silence itself is always slipping away like a timid wild animal. You have to be very still and lure it. This is hard; one has only to try to quieten one's mind or body to discover just how turbulent they are. But gradually I discovered a shape for each day and the silence took over."
The author notes that most of the accounts about chosen silence are religious but she also reveals a new source of silence stories by explorers, pioneers, sailors, prospectors, and lone adventurers. Over her 40-day retreat, Maitland undergoes eight distinct experiences related to silence including disinhibition, auditory hallucinations, boundary confusions, and bliss. She also ponders the connections between silence and accidie, which early Christian monks described as a blankness and restlessness.
Maitland continues her investigation of silence its history, landscape, and culture on trips to the Sinai Desert and the Scottish hills. Along the way, she discusses the oppositional silence of Zen, the listening silence of Quaker meetings, the disciplined silence of Trappists, the contemplative silence of Mark Rothko's paintings, and the dynamics of silent reading. Maitland also considers the bounties of silence in nature and its use by creative artists and writers.
The silence of the Sinai desert seems more pure to her. She elaborates:
"In the desert I learned that silence is more for me than a context for prayer, or a way of creating more time (though those are important). It is, in itself, a form of freedom; it generates freedom, free choices, inner clarity, strength, a freedom from one's self and a freedom to be oneself."
Maitland moves to a faraway and isolated place to continue her love affair with silence. We are the beneficiaries of this romance since it has brought forth this thoughtful and compelling book that deepens and enriches our knowledge and appreciation of silence.
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by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
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