When the word was silence

In a suburban Wellington dining room 10 people sit silently.

Condiments pass across the table at the raising of an eyebrow or flick of a finger.

One diner sees a neighbouring table’s empty water jug and rises quietly to fill it.

A mix of religious and non-religious, the group had never met until a month ago.

Most of them had never visited this place.

Now, 30 days later, they share a close connection but can scarcely remember the sound of each other’s voices.

When their voice boxes are finally awoken after a month of disuse, one man declares “silence has become my friend”.

Another calls it the most radical experience of her life.

After a hugely busy year, writer Dame Joy Cowley was feeling “about as sharp as a wet cornflake”.

So she switched on her email out-of-office – and disappeared for a month.

But her email bounce-back message wasn’t the Rarotonga beach break brag.

“Terry and I will be on a silent retreat from Nov 2 to Dec 7. We will not have internet contact at this time. Joy,” was the message.

For a month Cowley and her husband lived at Island Bay’s Home of Compassion, which functions as an urban monastery.

The mission was rest, renewal and reflection, in the oldest tradition of the Catholic Church.

The twist was that it all had to be achieved in complete silence, save for a 15-minute daily chat with a spiritual director.

For Cowley, spirituality and creativity are inextricable.

“I wouldn’t know the difference between meditation and writing.”

She already wakes at 4am every day to savour half an hour of quiet before the emails begin and the phone starts ringing. But even for her, spending an entire month in silence was hard work.

“You really have to look at yourself very closely. There are always bits of ourselves that we would like to discard and you have to accept those.” Continue reading

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