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Interview: Alison Woolley, director, Seeds of Silence

03 March 2017

‘A discipline of silence is demanding work, and often requires sacrifice on some level’

I’m certainly no expert on silence. But I bring to it my own daily practice of silence over a decade: my twice-yearly silent retreats to the Llanerchwen hermitages.


Seeds of Silence (SoS) is a response to the comments made by those wo­­men during my research which in­­vestigated the value and impact of chosen silence in the lives of con­tem­­­porary Christian women. They repeatedly talked about how little support there was for women in de­­veloping and sustaining a practice of silence. They felt that many clergy lacked experience or knowledge about practising silence as a spir­itual discipline, and that churches gener­ally have very little space for silence.


Women are often unable to go on retreats because they still bear much of the responsibility for caring for children, or for elderly relatives, and for running a home — on top of their working lives. Going on re­­treats can also be difficult finan­cially, especially for women with children, or who are disabled, un­­em­­ployed, or retired.


SoS encourages and supports Chris­tians in developing a spiritual discipline of silence. It’s an ecu­menical project, offering “Ex­­ploring Silence” workshops for Christians anywhere. A Christian charity funds this work in the Bradford area for one day a week, and I offer these, and additional workshops and courses nationally as freelance work.


SoS also facilitates local groups who meet for regular, silent prayer, and offers support and resources to those who want to set up similar groups in their locality.


More than 500 people a month visit our website, which carries signposts to the many organisations, blogs, books, websites, and retreat centres that can help them to explore a discipline of silence.


Two days a week, I work as a music therapist with children with severe or profound and multiple learning difficulties. I’ve just com­­­pleted a chap­­ter about the role of silence in research interviews for a book com­ing out in the autumn, and I’m turning my thesis into a book. I also work as a spiritual ac­­com­­panist.


Practices, or spiritual disciplines of silence, don’t really relate to ex­­­ternal silence — the absence of words or sound — but to a deeper, internal silence where one becomes aware of the ongoing eternal pre­­s­ence of divine love in which all things are held, and to a deeper awareness of our own being, and that of others. External silence is initially necessary and helpful in moving towards internal silence.


There’s a lot of external silence in my work as a music therapist, partly because the youngsters can take a long time to respond and make their own sounds, due to the level of their disabilities. But also I work best when I am grounded in a place of internal silence, where I am able to be fully present to the child and fully present to myself in response to them, and aware of the presence of God in and around and between us.


It’s probably in this work that I have learned most about what it is to offer this internal silence to an­­other person, how valuable it is for them, and how, without this internal silence, I am far less able to be available to others or to God, and less open to God’s activity within the world.


Having done a music degree, my mind’s primed to analyse rather than enjoy music, which makes the relationship between God, silence, and music ambiguous for me. Some­­times this feels like a great loss. But amid the intense silences in between moments of sound in music therapy, I’m sometimes shocked by the sense that, as a child and I create music together, then God’s presence with us and in each of us can feel almost tangible. I think it’s from the depth of atten­tion offered to one another from internal silence that this emerges, rather than from the music or sounds we create.


Today we’re hyper-stimulated, and it increases our propensity to react instantaneously rather than take the time we need to form an appropri­ate response. People are beginning to recog­nise the poor outcomes that re­­sult, and look for something to help them live more meaningful lives.


It also seems that today’s world feels more precarious: politically, environmentally, financially. It is not surprising that people are seeking ways of living that help them to feel more grounded, more connected with one another, more in touch with their own being in the face of the individualisation, disintegration, and fragmentation within society.


Nearly 200 years ago, Kierkegaard wrote: “The present state of the world and the whole of life is dis­eased. If I were a doctor and asked for my advice, I should reply: Create silence.” A century on, Max Picard wrote that nothing had changed the nature of humanity to our detriment so much as our loss of silence. Perhaps each new gen­eration has to discover this for them­selves.


Churches that follow a formal lit­urgy could keep the silence indicated in the liturgies for longer than five seconds. And just by leaving more auditory space in between phrases of the liturgy, a whole service can give people more sense of encount­ering God.


The practices of silence within the Christian tradition are, ultimately, about being in God’s presence in an intimate way, not about hearing God speak, asking for, or expecting to receive, anything. The mystics and respected practitioners today all caution against seeking or hoping for any “experience” of God, or to hear from God.


It may be that what seems to be a proliferation of voices speaking about meditative practices has al­­ways quietly been going on, but, because of the evolution of techno­logy and social media, we’re more aware of them.


Some are able to find a path by just getting on with it; but most need some guidance if silence is to be a long-term practice in which they stay mentally safe. Engagement with silence can have significant impact on our psyche, and we’re wise to pursue this along­side formal spiritual accompani­ment.


Of course, there is a danger of talk­ing too much — or talking nonsense — about silence. A dis­cipline of silence is about a shift from egoic consciousness towards the apo­phatic, but it’s far harder to talk meaningfully about this than about external silence. There’s also a dan­ger of people getting so caught up in retreats, or books, or ex­­ploring dif­fer­ent practices that they never actu­ally develop any disciplined silence. It’s demanding work, and often re­­quires sacrifice on some level.


My main practice is centring prayer as taught by Thomas Keating and Cynthia Bourgeault. I usually have two periods of 20-25 minutes fol­low­ing this practice of silence a day, but I know that, when I regu­larly make the time for a third, this has a significant impact.


The first experience of God that I remember was when I was about 11, singing the chorus “Jesus take me as I am” by Dave Bryant, and finding tears rolling down my face. The little girl standing next to me asked me why I was crying. I couldn’t explain, but I knew it was to do with grasping for the first time that God accepted me just as I was, without my needing to try to be anyone else. Three decades on, I’m still working on understanding what it really means to be unconditionally loved by God.


It’s difficult to know whether what I experience is God or just my own construct, but what I encounter in silence is God’s being and love, mediated to me through a sense of sinking to a place of vast openness, like a great plain, an endless vista, where my awareness is something other than my normal consciousness. Sometimes this vastness is very still, visually and physically; sometimes it is like swooping through layers of shifting, iridescent colours. I can lose all sense of time: 20-25 minutes somehow stretches to an hour, or longer. But this doesn’t happen often, and I don’t seek such encounters. That’s not the point.


More usually, any sense of God’s presence is illusive, or seems absent, though I trust and believe that God is always there.


John Cage has been influential. Hearing about his noteless com­position 4'33" when I was doing GCSE music first sparked my inter­est in silence. This, and many of his other works, had a big impact on my own composition style.


The musicians who’ve had most impact on me have been those I’ve sung and played with throughout my life — from Mrs Habberley, who began teaching me the recorder at school when I was five, through to those I’ve performed with, or been conducted by, over the years. Young­sters in therapy are my great­est teachers and collaborators.


I like pre-Baroque vocal music. I’d have loved to have played the cello: Jacqueline du Pré’s recordings are my favourites. Michelle Shocked and Sinéad O’Connor always delight me, along with my cat Maiya’s purr. I listen to much less music than I used to, although I encounter a wide spectrum of styles when I dance at 5 Rhythms each fortnight. If this was Desert Island Discs, the record I’d save from the waves would be Officium, by Jan Garbarek, and the Hilliard Ensemble.


These days, there are two books that I turn to more than any others
for inspiration and comfort:
Carla Grosch-Miller’s Psalms Redux: Poems and prayers, and Nicola Slee’s Praying Like A Woman.


What usually makes me angry are tales of national or local govern­ment agencies’ making judgements that com­­mon sense shows up as utterly ridiculous.


If you ask me where I’d most like to go, it’s always “To the sea.”


Love and compassion give me hope, and, in troubled areas of the world, the education of girls.


I’d love to see what St Hilda of Whitby would make of our wonder­ful cathedrals; so I’d like to be locked in Salisbury, Durham, or York Minster with her.


Alison Woolley was talking to Terence Handley MacMath www.seedsofsilence.org.uk

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