Tag Archives: silence

Silence as Refuge (Episode 12)

When we embrace silence as an alternative to conflict, are we just choosing to escape? Or can silence be a refuge, a temporary or even permanent shelter from the challenges of life? How can we tell the difference between silence-as-refuge and silence-as-escape?

Recognizing the ache that we meet, the ache of the whole  world … that we meet in our silences, right? It reminds us that there’s space there for the whole world. — Cassidy Hall

Silence can be “toxic” when we  refuse to speak to someone in the interest of resolving conflict or managing differences; likewise, silence can be toxic if we enter into it as a way of escaping conflict, or avoiding essential conversations or tasks that require our (verbal) attention.

But an alternative to the toxic quality of silence-as-escape is today’s topic, silence-as-refuge: the recognition that even the most socially and politically engaged activist needs times of retreat, of quiet, of rejuvenation and reflection.

For me what’s important is that the silence circulates even among the words… the word “silence” here is actually pointing to something else: a shift of attention, a refocusing. — Kevin Johnson

Our wide-ranging conversation explores how monasteries can function as “silence refuges,” fostering an ability to love from a place of deep interiority; the relationship between silence and “perfection;” the classroom setting as a venue for silence as a pedagogical strategy; the relationship between loneliness and solitude (aloneness); and much more!

When we’re taking refuge from something, that thing that we’re taking refuge from doesn’t just go away. It’s learning to be patient with the messiness of life, or the brokenness of life, or the wounding of life. — Carl McColman

Some of the resources and authors we mention in this episode:

Silence as a refuge is necessary;
Silence as a refuge is listening;
Silence as a refuge is cleansing;
Silence as a refuge is the poetry of love.

Episode 12: Silence as Refuge
With: Kevin Johnson and Carl McColman
Date Recorded:
November 27, 2017

Valentines Day & Ash Wednesday — Silence & Paradox (Episode 10)

For this episode, we felt drawn to reflect on a couple of “liturgical paradoxes” coming up now and in April: that the Christian holy day of Ash Wednesday corresponds to Valentine’s Day; and that Easter Sunday falls on All Fools’ Day, April 1.

Valentine’s Day originated as a Christian memorial (for Saint Valentine), but in its secularized form it is a day for celebrating romantic love — complete with flowers, a nice dinner out, and of course, plenty of chocolate. But this flies in the face of the meaning and observance of Ash Wednesday — as the first day of the penitential season of Lent, Ash Wednesday is a solemn occasion for reflecting on our mortality (“remember that you are dust”), our sinfulness or woundedness, and — at least in some traditions — is a day for fasting — hardly conducive to indulging in sweets!

Of course, even without the religious overlay, Valentine’s Day can be paradoxical even on its own — as a day of sorrow for those who are lonely, or bereaved, or even navigating a relationship where love is absent.

How do we hold these paradoxes together? Could silence be a key to finding a way to honor both the pleasures of love and the invitation to self-forgetfulness?

“Paradox is paradoxical only to the linear, self-conscious mind,” says Maggie Ross in her recently published book Silence: A User’s Guide, Volume Two: Application. She goes on to consider an alternative to the limitations of the linear mind, which she calls “deep mind.” “Deep mind is inclusive, what ancient writers refer to as the place of unity. Its ways of thinking are holistic, even holographic.”

“The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”  — attributed to Niels Bohr

Put another way: perhaps paradox is itself a gift, a reminder that there’s more to our minds (and our capacity to know and to understand) than the limitations imposed by language and linear thought. Perhaps when we try to make sense of how to hold a paradox like Valentine’s Day falling on Ash Wednesday gently and authentically, we are invited into a place of deeper and higher knowing — and the portal to that place is not logic or language but simply silence.

Some of the resources and authors we mention in this episode:

Another poem we didn’t mention in the podcast, but that deserves a shout out here, is Walter Brueggemann’s “Marked by Ashes” (from his book Prayers for a Privileged People). Also check out Thomas Merton’s thoughts on paradox in The Sign of Jonas

Like the prophet Jonas, whom God ordered to go to Nineveh, I found myself with an almost uncontrollable desire to go in the opposite direction. God pointed one way and all my “ideals” pointed in the other. It was when Jonas was traveling as fast as he could away from Nineveh, toward Tharsis, that he was thrown overboard, and swallowed by a whale who took him where God wanted him to go…But I feel that my own life is especially sealed with this great sign, which baptism and monastic profession and priestly ordination have burned into the roots of my being, because like Jonas himself I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox. — Thomas Merton

Episode 10: Silence & Paradox: Ash Wednesday & Valentine’s Day
Hosted by:
Cassidy Hall
Kevin Johnson and Carl McColman
Date Recorded:
February 9, 2018

Header Photo by Cathal Mac an Bheatha on Unsplash

Lerita Coleman Brown, PhD: Howard Thurman and the Inner Authority of Silence (Episode 9)

It’s easy to see the connection between silence and spirituality — but how does silence support the quest for justice, for a world that moves beyond racism, sexism, or the other social barriers that divide us?

Anyone familiar with the wisdom and words of the great American preacher and writer, Howard Thurman, knows that the silence of contemplation and the silence that empowers the struggle for justice is, in fact, one silence.

God is always speaking, Spirit is always speaking to us. And we can only hear that in the silence. I think that’s a very difficult concept for people to understand because they think of hearing things as in words. But we can connect to things that are beyond words. — Lerita Coleman Brown, PhD

Lerita Coleman Brown, PhD

Our guest this week is Professor Lerita Coleman Brown, professor emerita of psychology at Agnes Scott College and self-described “devotee” of Howard Thurman. A natural contemplative who recognized the importance of silence while still a child, Professor Brown’s remarkable life as a distinguished scholar, heart and kidney transplant recipient, and spiritual director, has been shaped not only by her longstanding commitment to a interior growth and the love of quiet, but also by her own experience as woman of color. Like Thurman, she recognizes that silence and contemplation are not only essential practices for a meaningful spiritual life, but are also profound gifts to a truly effective and life-affirming struggle for nonviolent, sustainable social change.

Our conversation explores a wide range of silence-related topics, from Professor Brown’s childhood (encountering silence in the Santa Ana winds) to her first exploration of meditation in college, finding the value of silence in the midst of an academic career, the power of stillness even in the midst of a hospital stay, ultimately leading to her discovery of the towering genius of Howard Thurman, mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr. and one of the most important (if under-appreciated) contemplatives of the twentieth century.

I think that there are so many opportunities for silence that we often don’t take because we’re in our heads chattering about why we are uncomfortable about being in the situation we’re in. — Lerita Coleman Brown, PhD

An important chapter of Dr. Brown’s story is her journey with heart disease which led to receiving a heart transplant in her early 40s. The process of her discernment to receive the transplant (along with a key career decision she had made years earlier) all point to how the power of silence literally saved her life.

Discovering Thurman while in formation as a spiritual director, Dr. Brown recognized one of the great (if under-appreciated) contemplatives of the twentieth century: grandson of a slave, child of the Jim Crow south, who went on to become a distinguished Baptist preacher, writer, speaker, and of course, inspiration to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and other key figures in the Civil Rights movement. But at the heart of Thurman’s genius was his deep and lasting commitment to silence, where he recognized we find eternity and, indeed, the presence of the living God.

But silence not only reveals God to us, but also reveals what Thurman calls the “inner authority” — that place within each of our hearts, where we discover who we are created to be, the strength and purpose that enables us to live the lives we are called to live — and, just possibly, to change the world in the meantime.

And I tell people all the time that ‘listen’ and ‘silent’ are the exact same letters just rearranged. So you cannot listen if you’re not silent, they’re just connected. — Lerita Coleman Brown, PhD

Some of the resources and authors we mention in this episode:

Find Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown online at her website, www.peaceforhearts.com.

To learn more about Howard Thurman (and to hear online audio files of his sermons), visit the website for the Howard and Sue Bailey Thurman Center at Boston University.

Professor Brown speaking on Howard Thurman at the 2017 Wild Goose Festival. Photo by Fran McColman.

Episode 9: Howard Thurman and the Inner Authority of Silence: A Conversation with Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown
Hosted by: Carl McColman
With: Cassidy Hall and Kevin Johnson
Guest: Lerita Coleman Brown, PhD
Date Recorded: January 22, 2018

Silence in Conflict (Episode 8)

What role does silence play in human conflicts? This question recognizes that silence may have a positive role to play — in helping to prevent or resolve conflicts — but that it could also have a negative role to play, as one one or more parties to a conflict use silence as a “weapon” to prevent reconciliation.

“When silence is done ‘right,’ silence can disarm us. Emotionally, physically, disarm us. It strips us of our ego. It takes us to that sacred center and allows us to try to learn how to love.” — Cassidy Hall

This week Kevin, Cassidy and Carl reflect on how we have experienced silence in conflict, in both creative and challenging ways.

From the old activist slogan “Silence = Death” to Audre Lorde’s challenging declaration “your silence will not protect you,” we examine how conflict reveals the different ways that we think about, or talk about, or use silence, especially when engaged in a struggle with another person or group.

“If the silence is being used to punish… then that’s not really silence in the way I talk about encounter or beholding, that’s actually noise. Using silence as a word, as a ‘No’ to someone as opposed to the other silence which is an absolute ‘Yes.’”— Kevin Michael Johnson

Should there be two words for silence? Is the “silence” that dominates or obstructs reconciliation really a type of psychic or spiritual “noise”?

We look at how silence can sometimes provide a “buffer” in the midst of an escalating family conflict, or how extreme emotions seem to propel us to a place of silence — where, by grace, we might regain our center and thereby begin the process of reconciliation, or at least recognize that beneath the feelings of conflict (anger, and rage) might lurk even more unsettling feelings such as fear.

“Silence is a democratic material. It allows everybody to have equal platform and equal voice, because if nobody’s talking, nobody is dominating.” — Helen Lees

What is the relationship between silence and listening? Can silence invite us into a place where, separated by conflict, we can learn to be together again? If politics is about power, how does silence invite us into vulnerability? What is the relationship between silence and the stories we tell, to foster relationship and reconciliation? These, and other questions, shape our conversation and exploration in this episode.

“Silence has something really creative to offer into a conflict situation. Whether it’s creating the space to listen, creating the space to cool-down or calm down, creating the space where we can invite all parties into a vulnerability.” — Carl McColman

Some of the resources and authors we mention in this episode:

Episode 8: Silence in Conflict
Hosted by: Carl McColman
With: Cassidy Hall and Kevin Johnson
Date Recorded: November 14, 2017

“If you do not understand my silence, you will not understand my words.” — Anonymous

Patrick Shen: Creating in Silence (Episode 7)

With this episode, Encountering Silence features our first conversation with a special guest — Patrick Shen, the director of the luminous and thought-provoking documentary film In Pursuit of Silence, which he describes as “a meditative exploration of our relationship with silence and the impact of noise on our lives.”

Incidentally, the three hosts of Encountering Silence first met each other through Maggie Ross as a result of her being interviewed for this film, so it’s fair to say that the film is the raison d’être for this podcast.

I’m just not that interested in making films anymore that add more to the noise. I’m interested in making films that point to this realm beyond the words, beyond the imagery. — Patrick Shen

Patrick shares with us how he came to be inspired to create his movie, the unlikely role that heavy metal music played in his early life (helping push him to an appreciation of silence!), to the “existential curiosity” that propelled his creativity as a filmmaker.

Our conversation explores the relationship between silence and death, the tension between the spirituality of the creative search and the work the creative process itself; how his relationship with silence is changing the way he works, and much more.

We all get this idea that silence is this magical sort of space, this magical material; and we want it to be infused in our daily life, we want it to be infused with every breath that we take and every moment of our day, and so I’ve become really fascinated with this idea of work evolving from that place, rather than the work imitating or being a representation of that engagement. — Patrick Shen

Patrick Shen’s award-winning films, including Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality, The Philosopher Kings, and La Source, have been screened at over a hundred and twenty film festivals across the globe and broadcast in over twenty-five territories. He was the recipient of the 2009 Emerging Cinematic Vision Award from Camden International Film Festival. Since 2012 Patrick has been lecturing and teaching filmmaking workshops all over the globe as a film envoy for the U.S. State Department and the USC School of Cinematic Arts for their American Film Showcase. His latest film In Pursuit of Silence premiered to sold-out audiences in November 2015 at the Copenhagen International Film Festival. A companion book to the film, Notes from Silence, will be released in February 2018.
Find Patrick Shen online at www.patrickshen.com or


A lot of us when we step into silence, at least initially, find our narratives or identity stripped away, and it’s a lot like a little death of sorts, and it’s terrifying. — Patrick Shen

Some of the resources and authors we mention in this episode:

Episode 7: Creating in Silence: A Conversation with Patrick Shen
Hosted by:
Cassidy Hall
Carl McColman and Kevin Johnson
Guest: Patrick Shen
Date Recorded:
January 12, 2018

IN PURSUIT OF SILENCE Trailer from Cinema Guild on Vimeo.

Our Silence Heroes (Episode 6)

Who are your “silence heroes” — persons, living or dead, famous or obscure, who inspired or mentored or otherwise encouraged your encounter, and/or ongoing relationship, with silence? This is the question that the three co-hosts of this podcast explore in this episode. Cassidy, Carl and Kevin talk about the spiritual leaders, mystics, poets, writers, and other key figures who have helped us to “meet” silence more fully in our lives.

When you really meet silence, when you really encounter silence, it reminds you that you’re good enough, as is — whatever you’re doing, whoever you are, it reminds you that you’re good enough, because it is a place of love, it is a place of self-encounter, it is a place of the encounter of the Divine, of God. — Cassidy Hall

We talk about how our silence heroes inspire us — how they encourage us to love, to embrace nature, to write and enjoy poetry, to be sacred nonconformists, to preserve stillness,  teach us how to talk about silence (or how to be silent with silence!), give us both theoretical and practical approaches to silence — all the while using their lyrical and poetic voices to encourage us to be, likewise, the “poets of our own lives” — lives in which silence “allows our own selves to actually come forward and speak.”

We are all poets of our own lives and silence allows our own selves to actually come forward and speak. — Kevin Johnson

Some of the resources and authors we mention in this episode:

At one point Carl mentions Martin Thornton when he’s actually talking about Martin Laird, so in all fairness to his Freudian slip, here’s a book worth reading from that author:

Silence is the tomb of Christ —  a place of infinite possibility.
— A Monk of New Melleray Abbey

Kevin Johnson is a university professor, writer, speaker, and retreat leader based in Connecticut.

Cassidy Hall is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker based in Los Angeles.

Carl McColman is an author, catechist, and retreat leader based in Atlanta.

For language to be sane, it needs to be suffused with silence; and for silence to be accessible, it needs to be held in language… to be a human being who wishes to enter deeply into the cave of silence, our sherpa will be language. — Carl McColman

Episode 6: Our Silence Heroes
Hosted by:
Kevin Johnson
Cassidy Hall and Carl McColman
Date Recorded:
November 13, 2017

Encountering Silence in Relationships (Episode 5)

What does it mean to encounter silence in the midst of our most intimate relationships? Unless you are an absolute hermit, other people factor in your life. From children and spouses, to nephews and neighbors, co-workers and companions, to be human is to be in relationship — and sometimes, relationships can be noisy places indeed.

In this episode we explore some paradoxical approaches to silence — for example, Kevin speaks eloquently of finding the silence even in the midst of a baby’s cry. He goes on to compare the challenges of balancing one’s own needs with the needs of loved ones to the dance of attention in a meditation practice — between awareness of silence and the inevitable irruption of distracting thoughts.

Keep the silence and stillness within. Because it’s always there, right? It’s always there. If you’ve met it once, if you’ve met it twice, if you’ve met it every day of your life, you know it’s there, it’s within. — Cassidy Hall

But there’s also the “inner relationship” — how we relate to our own self. Carl muses on how sometimes anxiety and depression come to call — and can make it challenging to remember that silence is always, already there.

In all our relationships — whether internal or external — silence calls us out of a place of self-focus into a place where we can be concerned with loving others — or welcoming whatever arises in the context of our lives. Silence teaches us that silence is always present — even in the midst of a baby’s cry, even in the midst of rage or fear or bitter loneliness.

We look at the monastic notion of the “school of love,” considering how silence is actually an instructor in the school of love — teaching us how to love others, as well as to love ourselves. But we also acknowledge that in relationships silence can sometimes be a way of avoiding intimacy — where “unheld conversations” can  signify a kind of external silence which masks interior noise. Again, though, silence can be the doorway through which we move to find reconciliation or greater intimacy — even if it means moving through “the fire” of conflict or challenging conversations.

Our conversation includes some thoughts on the sometimes contentious relationship between silence and language, and how poetry represents a way to bridge that particular gap.

What is a poem? A poem is just a useless spray of language. And yet, in that useless spray of language we find beauty, we find meaning, we find insight, we find connection, we find ourselves.— Carl McColman

Among the resources and authors we mention in this episode were poems by Rumi and Thomas Merton, and mention of the work of Cynthia Bourgeault as well as the spirituality of the desert fathers and mothers, particularly in regard to the deadly or afflictive thoughts. The following resources can help you learn more:

To learn more about the desert tradition of non-attachment to afflictive thoughts:

What’s the connection between words and silence is that they’re so interpenetrated that you need to have them both. You actually can speak yourself into the silence…  The only problem with words is that we get  trapped in them. — Kevin Johnson

Kevin Johnson is a university professor, writer, speaker, and retreat leader based in Connecticut.

Cassidy Hall is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker based in Los Angeles.

Carl McColman is an author, catechist, and retreat leader based in Atlanta.

Plan?!? What plan?

Episode 5: Encountering Silence in Relationships
Hosted by:
Cassidy Hall
Kevin Johnson and Carl McColman
Date Recorded:
November 13, 2017

Encountering Silence in Childhood (Episode 1)

What do you remember about encountering silence in your childhood?

In this episode we explore our first memories of “meeting” silence in childhood, moments in time where, whether in solitude or with others, whether near or far from home, whether shaped by emotional confusion or a sense of simply being present, something graced and mysterious intruded upon our awareness and brought us face to face, not only with the beauty of silence, but also with the mystery of our own deepest and truest selves.

From a lakeside in Virginia, to a Connecticut playground, to a prairie in Iowa, each of our memories involves being out-of-doors. And each of us struggles to put into words what ultimately seems to remain elusive, beyond what language can contain.

I all of a sudden felt extremely safe, completely at home, and there was a sense of I was much bigger than my body, that like somehow I was more than what I thought I was, and… I guess the word is ‘presence,’ a sense of that I just felt very — that there was something, there was more there than me.
— Kevin Johnson

As our conversation weaves in and around our shared, remembered moments of encounter, we talk about what it means to be present in our bodies, a sense of timelessness or eternity that sometimes seems to accompany the encounter with silence, and the dance of deep feeling, “not-knowing,” and longing that shaped our most profound moments of silence — even at a very early age.

Some of the resources and authors we mention in this episode:

Margery (aka “Carl’s cat”)

Kevin Johnson is a university professor, writer, speaker, and retreat leader based in Connecticut.

Cassidy Hall is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker based in Los Angeles.

Carl McColman is an author, catechist, and retreat leader based in Atlanta.

Episode 1: Encountering Silence in Childhood
Hosted by:
Cassidy Hall
Carl McColman and Kevin Johnson
Date Recorded:
October 2, 2017