In this video, Sr. Agnew discusses the role of silence as a spiritual practice and its role in the art of spiritual direction.
Reflecting her love for poetry, Agnew begins with a quote from Kavanaugh, saying that “Silence is the heartbeat of the world” and expanding on that, “silence was once the heartbeat of the world, but now it is a stranger. We find it difficult to live with silence. But silence lives in the life of everyone and we must befriend it.” This is a difficult concept for modern people who are numb from a bombardment of sensory stimuli throughout their waking hours. In a real sense, many people are fearful of the silence, because in that silence they are along with two of their worst fears—themselves and God.
Agnew is adamant that silence be a non-negotiable component of spiritual practice “be-cause in stillness the spirit surfaces.” She recalls a memory to illustrate this from her time growing up in Ireland. Because Ireland sits high in the northern latitudes, during the fall/winter she would often have trouble going to sleep at the proper time because, essentially, it was still light outside. She recalls looking out of her window on one of these occasions and seeing the little rabbits coming out to play in the evening because the farmers had left. The rabbits remind her of the Holy Spirit, whom she describes as “recessive, shy, and needs quiet in which to surface.”
This reviewer very much resonated to Agnew’s metaphor. Being trained in the Lutheran tradition, he recalled Dr. Luther’s description of the Deus absconditus in contrast to the Deus revelatus. Much of modern non-denominational and charismatic theology focuses on the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in demonstrable ways (i.e. signs and wonders, etc.) and seems to have lost connection with a quieter, softer, more obscure Holy Spirit of previous generations.
In response to the question, “How can spiritual direction help a person become comfortable with silence?” Agnew points out that silence “is difficult, not only because in silence does the Spirit surface, but also my past surfaces in silence, especially the unresolved areas.” This mixture of God’s presence with one’s own history can prove to be an uncomfortable challenge. Some of the thoughts and emotions which tend to surface during these periods are things which she categories as “the things I can’t tell myself.” For example, the truth that one is lonely, afraid, or angry. These and other items which one has “pushed to the background” begin to surface as one descends into silence.
An interesting point which Agnew mentions, but fails to elaborate on is her observation of the kinesthetic aspect of God’s presence and the human condition. She says, “My body will tell me when I am resentful, powerless…” but leaves it there. It would have been interesting to hear more about how spiritual directors might tap into the physicality of what is happening during a direction session.
Inviting the viewer in her own confidences, Agnew explains that “silence is a very sophisticated practice,” and how in her own life, sometimes her silence is “deep and quiet and tranquil” but at other times her silence is “noisy and full of little skeletons in the cupboard.” This is a great encouragement for those who are not full time contemplatives in religious orders. That even for the “professionals,” silence and stillness can be challenging.