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Michael Callahan, brilliant Drew Theological School student, said in his response to a previous blog post, “Silence grants its own power to the one who wields it.” I love this idea! We are crisply aware of the power of word(s), of the power of discussion, of the power of shouting, of voice, and of well-crafted articulation. We ponder the story of Genesis which depicts the marvelous power displayed by God when our world was spoken into being. We applaud the first words of a child. We look to the eloquence of preachers to beckon the opening of heaven’s doors. In the midst of talk, words and eloquence, we must, as we teach, become as aware of the power of silence. Silence requires its own kind of mastery.

When I consider the wielding of the power of silence, one name comes to mind – Dr. Vincent Harding.   Dr. Vincent Harding was a Historian who specialized in American religion and society. Along with his beloved wife, Rose Marie, he was equally an activist. From my experience of him – he was a master teacher. I came to appreciate Dr. Harding as a master teacher wielding the power of silence while he was teaching courses at Drew University Theological School on two separate occasions. Time does not permit me to give a full and proper description of Dr. Harding’s ways and practices in the classroom which supported his silence approach, but in a nut-shell, here is my description.

Dr. Harding would ask the class if there were any questions about the readings. Routinely, several hands would fly up. Dr. Harding would point to a student. The student would ask his/her question. Dr. Harding would then with his eyes open, sit thinking in silence. A few seconds would go by. Then, at some point, Dr. Harding would close his eyes – continuing in silence … for one minute, two minutes, sometimes five or ten minutes. The first time I witnessed this – I thought he had fallen asleep (my bad!). In time, Dr. Harding would emerge out of the silence, and then would respond to the student’s question taking twenty, thirty, or forty minutes of uninterrupted, thoughtful consideration before answering. By mid-semester, he was answering about two questions per class session. By the end of the semester, he would ponder a question for thirty or forty minutes before responding.

During the first session of the class, students would be restless while Dr. Harding was in silence. After three or four sessions there was a shift. During the time of silence, students would still themselves; the feeling of fidgety-ness was replaced with an air of expectation and wonder. The empty silence was replaced with a full silence. When the silence was broken by Dr. Harding’s words, students were focused and attentive – waiting for the engagement.

The silences of Dr. Harding, as you can imagine, drastically changed the tempo of the interactions in the classroom. A typical class discussion is “rapid fire” like tempos described musically as Prestissimo or Moderato, with only fleeting moments of pause and silence. In a usual classroom there is discomfort with silence so students and teachers work to fill every moment with some kind of noise – productive or benign. The long, long silences in Dr. Harding’s class created a tempo better described as Grave or Slow, Largo or Lento. The silences, creating a new tempo, added a dimension to the session which was a kind of a spiritual intangible. Students would feel good about posing a question which evoked such consideration and thoughtfulness. Students also felt the sting, if after having posed a question, Dr. Harding answered swiftly or ignored it.

It seems to me that the power wielded by the silence in Dr. Harding’s classes is a tapping into meditative, spiritual power inextricably linked to intellectual know-how. This approach disrupts the stale caricatures of “teacher as expert” or "the sage of the stage” for a more authentic experience of wisdom and compassion. When we free ourselves from the illusion of being the “fount of information” who has to rush to answer each question upon demand, and instead use our power to deeply consider the better/best questions of our students – the ecology of the classroom shifts from a sterile place to a place of warmth and liberation.

What would it mean to give ourselves permission to contemplate and ponder while teaching? What kinds of spiritual disciplines might we incorporate into our lives which would allow for more silence in our classrooms? How might we signal to our students the importance of their questions by the thoughtfulness of our responses?

Nancy Lynne Westfield

About Nancy Lynne Westfield

Professor of Religious Education
Drew Theological School

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. His approach was powerful.I often find myself thinking what would he tell me to do, or say or not to say, or when to say it. He made a lasting impression on my life. I miss this man I called my friend. Thank you Dr. Westfield.

  2. I am reminded of John Cage’s 4’33” – a piece of music consisting of silence. The audience in attendance at a performance of this piece is given the opportunity to hear the music that surrounds our lives, yet often goes unheard. A cough, a breeze, papers rustling… silence is rarely actually silent, but there is a power within it that most of us often miss.
    I agree with you on several fronts: First, as you say, silence is “a tapping into meditative, spiritual power inextricably linked to intellectual know-how.” It does, in fact, disrupt our world in which we are constantly bombarded with sound. And second: Michael Callahan is brilliant. 🙂

  3. Silence is golden. That expression rings true for me. Rare are the opportunities for silence in a world as harried and hurried as ours. LOL- Live Out Loud, Laugh Out Loud, whatever you do, do it loudly. Social media has only enhanced the volume by giving more people a platform to express their thoughts, ideas and for marketers to reach us with ads. Contemplative silence is something we should take seriously and treasure. Silence helps us think, create and decide.

  4. Peter I really love this quote, “silence is rarely actually silent…” Maybe silence in and of itself is a sound. I think silence enables us to cut through the clutter and hear what matters and what is relevant. I wonder how we can train ourselves to listen actively to silence. I’m sure we’d discover some fascinating things.

  5. Silence can often provide more answers than noise. I personally believe this because it is in silence that I find the answers to some of life’s hardest questions/issues/problems. I think silence has its place in the classroom. This reminds me of my former professor Dr. Hoffmeyer; who I grew to appreciate because he took the time to think before responding to our questions. This made me realize that with all of the content that he knew, he still needed to think through things. Being able to think in silence allows our thoughts to not be influenced by the noise that surrounds us in our daily lives.

  6. As a Quaker, I find the language of silence familiar. For example the other day I was engaged in a conversation with a non-Quaker church leader about how business is conducted with a Quaker meeting church. Silence is a critical part of Quaker meetings for business as is 100% conscious. But this leader, imprinted with the democratic process of voting told me that 100% conscious is impossible within church. I found this leader’s outburst uninformed as I reflected on Quaker history and polity that has survived based on 100% conscious. As I listened to this leaders, confused by the practical implications of 100% conscious he asked me how is that possible?

    I believe Quaker silence makes conscious possible. I reminded this leader that the Quaker faith has been practicing 100% conscious for 400 years and when an issue/ item is lifted up that needs deliberated, the quakers would sit in silence, listen to the Spirit, listen to voices that emerge out of the silence and in due time come to conscious. In this space Quaker will let the Spirit discern any difference on an issue. If there is disunity on issue the Quakers would continue in silence in order that all members may offer up new ideas, and/or morphing ideas. Typically, the Spirit is faithful and out of silence comes new idea that inspires the process. The silence also creates space within our meetings to fully hear voices and perspective who might have been missed in the beginning deliberations (a.k.a. children, people who are vocally quite, etc.). Thus systemically if Quakers were to vote on an issue it could deny and further marginalize an individual or group. For example, those who win the vote are placed over those who lose the vote. Granted this process can sometimes take minutes, but sometimes it takes months. But as I have observed and experienced, the work done within Quaker silence typically leads to something greater and more amazing where all voices are heard.

    Thus, silence is a power tool for ushering in social change and nurturing the leadings of the Spirit. Thanks N.L.Westfield for this meaning post!

  7. Melanie: I like how you highlighted the Culture of business we have fallen into as a church and society. We forget how to turn of our technology. Or if we get bored, then we turn on the TV and watch mindless reality TV or cooking shows. I even read an article the other day that the low frequencies and hums that come from our Wifi routers is causing people headaches and restless nights. I recent read a book call Steal Like an Artist but Austin Kleon which talks about when turning technology off we are allows ourselves to truly engage creative in a tangible way. computer screens as he argues stifles our ability to be fully creative. Where as with pens paper and sticky notes, a creator uses all of his senses.

  8. Emmanuel: it is amazing how the things that create anxiety in our lives are typically rooted the noise we surround our selves in. Yet if we are to step back and engage in silence than we may hear our subconscious sifting through the hard questions, issues and problem. Quaker preachers do a very simpler think when speaking. We also find examples of this in music. For example the musical rest (musical term for pause) are equally as important as the musical notes.

  9. Parker, I love the idea of silence leading to decisions within the church (or any other organization, for that matter)! Imagine if our political leaders were to listen even half as much as they talk! I think the fallacy that many of us speaking-folk fall into is the idea that if God is going to be speaking through us, then our mouths have to be moving in order for that to happen.

  10. Brilliant you say? Well who am I to disagree with my professor when they make such profound statements? Often it seems to be the case that people confuse volume with correctness. Those with loud voices get counted as strong and those who remain silent are weak. I despise this thinking and I believe it is entirely wrong. This way of thinking denies the value of silence and discounts the many quieter voices who do not seek to use volume or haste in order to assert being right. It has been a joy over the years to work in team building and to create opportunity for all to have a voice. Sometimes this means deliberately silencing a “loud voice” so that the “quiet voices” have a chance to be heard. I would inform someone who took leadership upon themselves that they have been bit by the mute bug and can no longer speak though, I also tell them that this does not mean they can no longer communicate. With the loudest voice gone silent, the rest of the group sees that they must no dialogue and not remain silent followers. Often an interesting transformation happens and the group finds a new way of existing that incorporates all their voices.

  11. Parker what you shared about silence working in your faith tradition sounds beautiful to me. A chance for all voices to be heard, what a grand opportunity to give to those present. I wonder what it would be like to incorporate these two styles of utilizing silence into my own life and teaching opportunities. Busy schedules don’t often allow for chances to enact long silent pauses, but a deep breath and a long silence and do wonders for one’s ability to think, speak, listen, and pray.

  12. Peter, I completely agree that silence is rarely silent. Leopold Stokowski made a profound statement that your post reminded me of. He said “A painter paints pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence.”. Is it possible that we have a misinterpretation of what silence is? I see silence as a platform for which noise stands on. Whether it is with music, words of wisdom or folly, or the noise of life; silence heightens our expectations for sound.

  13. “When we free ourselves from the illusion of being the “fount of information” who has to rush to answer each question upon demand, and instead use our power to deeply consider the better/best questions of our students – the ecology of the classroom shifts from a sterile place to a place of warmth and liberation.” I resonate very well with this line Dr. Westfield and I think it is a remarkable piece. I personally believe the reason why people in general, in most cases are not saying what they need to say and saying what they need not to is the fact that we seem to like talking too much. In many cases when we are supposed to listen we keep talking. So Michael, as you pointed out earlier was right for making that statement. It is good to speak but I believe silence is golden.

  14. Michael I agree with you. Silent is not a sign of weakness. Being loud does not indicate maturity or braveness. In the biblical story about the crucifixion of Jesus, when he stood before Pilate, Pilate ask him several question of which I believe he had answers to them yet he refused to speak and used silence as his strength at the time. So silence is not a limitation or ones inability to express themselves but a great sign of strength and good timing. Coming from Ghana, it is culturally acceptable and respectable to observe the virtue of silence.