Cosmopolitan silence

Many years ago I shared a long silent retreat, in the Ignatian tradition, with a group of twenty or so people I’d never met before or seen since. I remember many of them well, and with affection, though we never spoke to each other. In silence we were shaped into a little community by language other than the spoken word we more usually rely on.

Gentle, slow moving, silent gestures gave one to understand perfectly a request for salt and pepper, or bread, or one of the beautiful fluted white china coffee pots. A slight smile, wave or bowing of the head communicated pleasure, or prayer, or recognition, or thanksgiving or tiredness. Silence affords opportunities for shared recognition of cosmopolitan human individuality, preference, respect for others’ space.

This week we’ve kept company with many others with whom, once we’ve managed to pass the customary greetings in (more or less!) each other’s own language, everyone comes to rely on similar, non-verbal forms of communication. What fascinates me is the warmth that can be thereby conveyed. Nothing short of a quiet friendship has ensued between ourselves and a neighbour with whom the only spoken word we share in common is “snow”.

Daydreaming, I’ve been wondering how a (hypothetical) day’s silence, one day a week perhaps, might change the way we twenty-first century humans relate to one another – in continents and nations, in factories, government buildings, homes, hospitals, hotels, libraries, offices, places of learning or worship, public parks and transport?

Useful and uniquely human as they undoubtedly are, could it be that sometimes our verbal communications, the million and one things we say every day, just get in our way? What kind of world-uniting future might be shaped and formed in the (even very occasional) sound of a generously attentive and cosmopolitan silence?

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