‘Shhh/Peaceful’ (Miles Davis).
St Beuno’s is a Jesuit centre situated near St Asaph in Wales. The retreat provides training in Ignatian spiritual exercises for people of faith and, sometimes, for those with none. I spent three days there in cloistered silence in order to hear. The practice of silence involves a cessation of talking and the avoidance of unnecessary noise. In those parts of the house where silence was observed and respected, the carpeted corridors served not only to dampen footfall but also as a sign of each retreatant’s commitment to restraint. Doors were opened and closed and all movements made with slow deliberation in the awareness of the moment and its passing. At meal times, silence was accompanied by what Brian Eno would call ‘discreet music’. Not muzak! It wasn’t an acoustic in-fill. Instead, the sound oiled an attitude of conviviality among the silent participants that could otherwise be expressed only through smiles and nods as we acknowledged one another and our collective endeavour.
The prospect of silence for someone like me, who has sat for days on end in academic libraries not speaking to anyone, was far from daunting. However, the discipline of inner silence is, in practice, very difficult because it requires practice. I have only to close my mouth to stop speaking. But, to subdue the noise that occupies the mind’s ear is a proficiency few novices possess. On the first day, I suffered the chatter and clamour of remembered disputations, anticipated conversations, and unresolved thoughts that drifted off-station into the fizzling static of diffuse anxieties and self-recriminations. Under these conditions, praying in silence was as likely as having a meaningful conversation at a rave.
I was silent but not in silence. On the second day, having quieted myself, I began to notice very small sounds emanating from remote parts of the house: the clink of cutlery in the kitchen, the reverberant drawl of a dry wooden draw being dragged open in a room at the far end of the hall, and the shuffling shoes of employees in the building’s administrative offices. These were mundane reminders of the still present world to which I would soon return.
Outdoors, in the enclosing garden and forest, I was conscious of a constant brown noise (like the sound of pressurized water coursing through a radiator) made by motor vehicles on the distant A55 North Wales Expressway. Other sonorities interposed: the wind-blown brittle leaves that hiss and spit like sparklers in the treetops; the creak of supple branches as they bowed and chafed; the pitch and climb of light aircraft; and the faint, hollow thrust of a passenger plane far above everything.
On the third day, I discovered an exhibition board in the building’s basement gallery on which appear the words of Gerard Manley Hopkin’s ‘God’s Grandeur’ (1877). He wrote the sonnet during the final year of his Jesuit study at St Beuno’s. In the opening lines, God is manifest in neither cacophony nor silence nor even (somewhere in between) in ‘the still, small voice’ (1 Kings 19. 11–12) but, rather, through visual simile: ‘It will flame out, like shining from shook foil’. In this image a sound, too, is present – allusively: the shrill crack of the thin brittle metal as it sparks. I came seeking silence, and found also a quiet noise within a vision.