A Book of Silence – Sara Maitland

Exactly what it says on the tin – a book about Maitland’s long search for and attempts to live in silence. I found it interesting, though she looks at things largely from the viewpoint of a committed Christian, and therefore one of the things she is trying to do with silence is to search for and be at one with God, and to pray – at the end of the book, she mentions that she tries to pray for three hours a day. For a reader who has no faith in God, it strikes one as an odd use of one’s time. It’s also a very personal and apparently honest book, despite all the references to silences experienced by other people: the reader perhaps ends up knowing more about Sara Maitland than if she’d written a conventional autobiography. I came to this book without having read anything else by her (apart from a brief article for a magazine, about Arthur Ransome’s character Nancy Blackett).

Many of her references in her search for silence are religious, not merely Christian, but also Buddhist (other religions may have their silent adherents, but Maitland did not quote writings by them), and it’s interesting to see how the interpretations of silence vary between the silence as an emptying of oneself for God (religious silence), and a fulfilment of the self for one’s own identity (the Romantic silence). In her quest for silence, she tries to experience the silence of the moors, the desert, the hills, the forest (though admits she was frankly terrified of the silence of forests), and charts the experiences of full-on solitude and silence, and the psychological and physiological changes which these bring.

However, I do wonder whether Maitland unconsciously confuses the effects of silence with those of solitude: mainly because her search for silence involves being alone. She confesses that for her, silence has to mean solitude, since her upbringing in a large and argumentative family means that she cannot remain in a comfortable silence when other people are present or contactable. One of the writers on silence she quotes was psychologically isolated – silenced – by being imprisoned in Beijing and heard around him a language that he did not understand: the lack of silence around him did not lead to the same effects that other, truly silent, writers have described, but rather the sense of being isolated, I feel.

One of the things Maitland sees as being a result of learning to live a more silent, contemplative life, is how much more observant of the natural world she has become. This makes me think that in her previous life she must not have been a very observant person at all – even in the noise of London, where I now live, I still hear robins and blackbirds sing, watch the colours of sunset, see how the quality of light changes through the year, and I wouldn’t call myself someone who is particularly in tune with nature. Still, she obviously feels that silence did the trick for her.

I do think that she reminds us, in this book, that silence isn’t to be feared, or shunned; but I do think that neither should one embrace it exclusively (and indeed she makes the point that without an intermediary to interact with the noisy world for the silent one, a completely silent life simply isn’t possible). Human beings are conditioned to want company; we are not by nature solitary animals – though obviously sports do occur. And it’s not an unthinking silence she inhabits, either, but a conscious thought one, engaging with the world outside of human interactions.

An interesting book, and recommended, even if I disagreed with a lot of what she was writing.

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