Sunday, May 31, 2009

Silence and voice

A number of my regular readers know that for three or so years I lived off the electrical grid in a log cabin surrounded by 80 or so acres of woods.

My husband, daughter and I chopped wood, carried water and kept company with wild things. A band of coyotes, a nursery of raccoons, deer, wild turkeys, even an elusive grey fox and those strange, nocturnal flying squirrels (with the coincidentally appropriate species name sabrinus) made their homes right outside our door.

We knew where the wild morel and oyster mushrooms grew, and where the trilliums and trout lilies would, year after year, poke through the last snows of spring. And though woodlands are hardly quiet, we reveled in the silence of our lives.


You don’t really understand silence until you live without electricity. Even when nothing else is “on,” appliances powered by electricity hum. We are so used to it we don’t even hear it. But in our cabin, without that constant soft electrical filler, the stillness yawned and created space for more than just us.

Contemplatives and mystics of all stripes have written about what emerges from silence. The psalm tells us: Be still, and know that I am God. And truly, there is no way to emerge from a period of chosen stillness and silence without the sense of having been touched (deeply transformed, actually) by what is numinous and holy.

The Catholic Standard & Times’ columnist Michelle Francl-Donnay wrote in January and February of this year about her 30-day silent retreat to make St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises (read about it on her blogs and

She writes evocatively not only about the silence she kept during that time, but about her nocturnal schedule of prayer: “In the burst of the dawn there is no mistaking God’s hand at work. In the more subtle beauties of the night, God is teaching me anew to hear His voice, as did Elijah, in the softest of murmurs, to wait patiently for the moments when His glory arcs in all clarity across the heavens — to live and move and have my being entirely within Him.”

Then, at the end of the retreat, her writing about coming out of the silence is equally compelling: delight in the noise of a life restored to fullness; a wistful parting from the intense silence that opens to God’s voice.

We, too, left our silent enclave in the woods to return to the noise of a more conventionally lived life. My father was alone after my mother’s death, and the potent Greek-Latina filial sense of duty kicked me right out my haven and back into din and bustle. When we moved to be with my father I had no idea that I’d come to see silence as an antagonist.

Turns out there is a difference between a silence elected and one exacted.

Where one heals, the other one breaks. Where one admits God, the other denies redemption.

I’ve been asked often why I focus this blog on immigrants and immigration issues when I myself have been an American citizen since birth. The question always seems strange to me, but it’s been asked enough times that I’ve had to think about the answer. There is the fact that I’m a person of faith, enjoined to welcome the stranger, charged with loving neighbors irrespective of familiarity or “alienness.” But there is a more mundane reason as well.

As a writer, I live by stories. I live to hear the voices – the particular cadences and the lived experience – in each person quoted in a story. But it turns out that although we’ve been talking about immigration for a number of years now, we’ve read few quotes, heard few voices, of those we’ve been talking about.


It would be a comfort to think that the silence of the undocumented among us is chosen. But from my own interactions with them I know this is not the case. In every instance, the undocumented immigrants I have interviewed have yearned to tell their stories. They have been waiting, patiently, to add their voices to the larger immigration story being crafted in print, over the airwaves and in cyberspace. In this they are no different than the rest of us – we all want to be heard, we all want to tell our own stories.

The silence, I believe, is exacted by fear. Not theirs, ours.

With best intentions – or not – we don’t want to be confronted by lives so vastly different from our own. By experiences that don’t mesh with what we understand America to be. By different hopes, or different ways of being, or different forms of expression. We are heirs to a grand tradition of egalitarianism, but we too often confuse it with homogeneity, and give authority of voice mostly to those whose lives resemble our own.

It is Pentecost Sunday today, perhaps the most visually exciting of all feast days – what with the tongues of fire dancing over the apostles’ heads and the rushing wind sweeping through the room where they are gathered. And in the raucous scene Acts 2:1-11 sets for us, I find answer to some of what I have been writing about. Under the same roof, the apostles proclaim in different tongues, in different ways, so that all will hear their own voices in the story raised by the Spirit.

And later, in the first Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians, I hear what my writing – in every voice I quote or when I give voice to my own experiences – wants to be about: “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.”

There is much of the song of elected silence from my years in the woods that lingers even amid the noise of living here and now.

I remember one night opening the cabin door onto the glade out front. There, not four steps away, a coyote – bleached white by the moonlight – sat facing me. We stared at each other. I saw his muscles bunch, unsure of whether peace could be found with this alien creature that had taken up residence in his woods.

There was a moment when I considered going back inside, so the ghostly canid before me would forget my presence, forget my disruption of his routines.

But I held where I was, and after a few minutes, started speaking to him as if he could understand my assurances that I meant no harm and that the woods were big enough for us to coexist. Several assurances in, he threw his head back and gave a short yipping yowl before trotting off.

Different voices. No fear.


  1. how nice to see The Cabin again! I still have wonderful wonderful memories of times spent in those woods - and events that took place there.

    where does time go?!

  2. Sabrina, this is my favorite post. I want to hear stories of your time in the woods! I'm thinking about doing something similar and would love to hear about your experiences.

  3. I am a Colombian woman and Episcopal priest who has started a storefront ministry for Latinos in Ft Lauderdale. I understand precisely what you mean about silence exacted. As much as there is to "do" in this ministry, the really sacred times occur when I sit and listen. The stories always pierce my heart...

  4. Morgan VourvouliasJune 1, 2009 at 5:25 PM

    Mom...good job!!!! :) I think that this was a really good post, and I have an idea for it...;)

  5. this is so powerful, especially what you write about IS our fear that keeps their stories from being heard.

  6. I just re-read this (long story as to why) and still shiver at the power of Paul's words to the Corinthians, if only we would let ourselves hear them.

    This is as powerful a reflection on Good Friday as it was on Pentecost - on a day when silence was exacted, stillness enforced.


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