“Silence is God’s first language,” Thomas Keating wrote, quoting John of the Cross, and adding, “Everything else is a poor translation. In order to hear that language, we must learn to be still and rest in God.”
Into this humble conversation prolific author Sara Maitland has plunged, offering to it her latest work, “A Book of Silence” ($25 in hardcover from Counterpoint Publishers), which Dominique Browning, writing for the New York Times, calls
a brilliant exploration of something — or is it a nothing? — that right at the start is impossible to define precisely. Is silence the absence of words? Or is it the absence of sound altogether? Is there even such a thing as silence that we can experience? Isn’t there always the swoosh of blood through the body? Is silence dependent on external conditions? Or is it a quality of mind? What would you call the visual effect of something like a Rothko painting?
Maitland’s silence, Browning says, is experienced as something of a full-bodied travelogue.
[Maitland] begins her life-changing adventure by spending 40 days and 40 nights alone in a tiny house set high on a ridge on the Isle of Skye. There she experiences “a group of sensations, most of them oddly physical,” including disinhibition, auditory hallucinations and “ineffability and bliss.” Later, she visits the silence of the Sinai Desert and the windswept hills of the Scottish borders. And eventually she has a new house built for herself in a remote place, far from her old life.
Surprisingly, Maitland’s journey provokes a crisis in her work. A successful novelist, she had long depended on her ability to imagine alternate worlds. But the deeper she went into silence, the more her fiction eluded her. “This gave me the idea,” she explains, “that there might be something profoundly different between the silence of the hermits and the silence of creative artists.” The first kind of silence requires an emptying out of the self in order to be receptive to God; the other fortifies the self in order to be inventively godlike. “Silence has no narrative,” she concludes. “Silence intensifies sensation, but blurs the sense of time.” Building on this speculation, Maitland’s ambitious, wide-ranging book investigates the varied nature of creativity and dives into considerations of both madness and joy.
The complete review appeared in the Sept. 8th Times.