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No mobile, no life

26 April 2013

VALERIE is inconsolable. The man whom she kicked out of her house is causing her problems. He has got her spare front-door keys, he has taken all the money iHgVXaWR0aBsAAAAAAAA2QAEAAAAeBkhlnk card and PIN. So I can see why she is in a state, with no money to buy food for herself or her child; but she has not yet mentioned the thing that most concerns her.

"He's got my phone," she says.

It transpires that it is the loss of her phone which she cannot cope with. The stolen money and a vulnerable bank account are of little consequence compared with the loss of her phone. "What am I going to do?" she cries out in abandonment. Her phone, stuffed with smart technology, gives her connection, relationship, and meaning: it is her god. Without her distracting god, there is a terrible silence.

I am reminded of a silent retreat that I led recently. You might imagine that those who choose such a retreat are ready for silence; but what became apparent was just how hard people found it.

I met participants, one to one, and raw from the quiet, strong emotions, and some terror emerged. We should not be surprised. Silence is increasingly unfamiliar, and we cannot assume that we will know what to do with it, or how to handle it - this former friend now becomes something that frightens.

Valerie, an urban single mother, panicked in her phoneless silence; but then so did some professional Christians on retreat. In silence, we may soar skywards in spiritual liberation. But, equally, we may spiral downwards, if voices of self-hate are allowed free rein. In the Vale of Silence, we are both wonderfully open and wretchedly vulnerable to the deepest truths of our lives.

The next week, I took part in a Pippa's Progress evening, which included a question-and-answer session. One of the questions concerned social-media technology, which gives Pippa an unsatisfying experience along the way.

"Are you against this technology?" the questioner asks.

"Not at all," I say. "It's remarkable. My only fear is that it's breeding a generation that is terrified of silence, and is increasingly unable to use it. It's the new disability."

You don't have to be Trappist or Quaker to feel that silence has been squeezed out by much religious practice. But we will approach it with caution, remembering that the first rule of silence - whether it is five minutes or five days - is this: be kind to yourself.

Notice yourself honestly; notice the thoughts and feelings arising, beautiful or otherwise - but never judge yourself. A self-judging silence reveals nothing, and may make you dangerous.

Simon Parke is the author of Pippa's Progress (DLT, 2012).

The columns by Angela Tilby and Paul Vallely will return next week.


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