One of our Lenten ‘disciplines’ in the seminary is to eat Thursday lunch in silence. What this means in practice is: no talking; a spiritual book is read for about 15 minutes; and whenever the particular chapter is finished we spend the rest of the time listening to the ambient noises in the dining room.
I’m certainly not the first to write about this, but you do notice a lot of things when the noise of chatter dies down. The sound of cutlery on crockery, of the boiler in the basement, of chopping in the kitchen next door. The detailing around you: the grain in the wooden table, the words ‘stainless steel’ stamped into some (but not all) of the knives. Time itself changes. I’d never realised how long, in the silence, it can take someone to eat just half an apple.
People, above all, are transformed. In a strange way you can be more present, not less, to another person in silence. Words can sometimes become an unintentional smokescreen to meeting another, and the sheer physical reality of the human being (and even their inner life) can be appreciated in a new way. Yes, words can reveal a person; but a person is more than their words — and that’s easy to forget.
The book we are using, by the way, is The Saints’ Guide to Happiness: Everyday Wisdom from the Lives of the Saints by Robert Ellsberg — which I highly recommend for personal reading.
Here’s a preview from the Macmillan website:
A noted spiritual writer seeks answers to life’s big questions in the stories of the saints. In All Saints –published in 1997 and already a classic of its kind –Robert Ellsberg told the stories of 365 holy people with great vividness and eloquence. In The Saints’ Guide to Happiness, Ellsberg looks to the saints to answer the questions: What is happiness, and how might we find it?
Countless books answer these questions in terms of personal growth, career success, physical fitness, and the like. The Saints’ Guide to Happiness proposes instead that happiness consists in a grasp of the deepest dimension of our humanity, which characterizes holy people past and present. The book offers a series of “lessons” in the life of the spirit: the struggle to feel alive in a frenzied society; the search for meaningful work, real friendship, and enduring love; the encounter with suffering and death; and the yearning to grasp the ultimate significance of our lives. In these “lessons,” our guides are the saints: historical figures like Augustine, Francis of Assisi, and Teresa of Avila, and moderns such as Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Henri J. Nouwen. In the course of the book the figures familiar from stained-glass windows come to seem exemplars, not just of holy piety but of “life in abundance,” the quality in which happiness and holiness converge.