Practicing Silence

WEEREAD: Practicing Silence — New and Selected Verses

What is silence?

Our first thought is usually absence of sound. In Bonnie Thurston’s poetry collection “Practicing Silence,” silence is that, but it’s other absences as well, some of which have nothing to do with sound.

Silence is the no-talking rule in a monastery’s dining room where signs like “pick up your tray at the kitchen door” anticipate questions that don’t need to be spoken. It’s the absence of hair on newly shaved monks’ heads, the winnowing of possessions in later life, the doubt and uncertainty when one seeks an answer, the empty belly marked by stomach rumblings during silent prayer, the place in the bed where a late spouse used to lie, the blankness of a long dark night, the “fruitful emptiness” of a cloister garden.

It is silence with a purpose, according to the poem “Absence and Emptiness”:

At the heart of absence

is fullness of life,

awareness of the prayer

that is always within.

Most of all, it’s the silencing of one’s self and ego, in order to do the work of listening. As the title suggests, it is a practice, like prayer, meditation or fasting; and, as with other things we learn, like learning an instrument or cultivating gratitude, it takes practice.

“This is a book about spirituality,” Thurston — who lives just outside of Wheeling — writes in the introduction. While it is steeped in the tradition of Christian monasticism, she hopes the poems “might speak to both the spiritual seeker and the spiritual bystander, offering some small light in the great darkness.”

The book uses monastic experiences as a structural device. The first section recalls visits to monasteries, especially those in the tradition of St. Benedict, who began his rules for monks with the imperative, “Listen.”

The second, “Vocation,” explores questions that many of us, college students or pilgrims or people who’ve been laid off, have wrestled with: What work shall I do in the world? “Success at something / doesn’t mean / one should give her heart to it,” Thurston writes.

Her own vocations have included spiritual director; New Testament scholar and professor at Wheeling College, Bethany College and Pittsburgh Theological Seminary; visiting scholar at Harvard; Disciples of Christ minister; scholar of Thomas Merton; speaker; retreat leader; and the author of over a dozen books, including Women in the New Testament, To Everything a Season: A Spirituality of Time, For God Alone: A Primer on Prayer, and, just published in May, Shaped by the End You Live For: Thomas Merton’s Monastic Spirituality.

Her dry wit comes through in a poem considering that common icebreaker, “What Do You Do?” and the distance between saying one is a professor and the truer answer she would really like to give:

Asked, “what do you do?”,

“watch for smoke signals”;

“observe evaporation” —

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are completely accurate,

utterly unacceptable answers.

The third section, “Horarium,” follows the daily ritual of praying at set hours, from dawn to dark. The fourth practices “Lectio Divina,” or holy reading, an imaginative and repetitive entry into a passage of Scripture. In the last poem, “Precious Rocks,” Thurston’s reading of a single sentence about a stone given a secret name becomes a poem about her own long rock-collecting history.

The fifth section, “Interior Prayer,” reflects on learning to still oneself, waiting for and trusting the growth that comes over time. Walking in the woods, watching wind across water can be a form of prayer. Some poems speak prayers:

May nothing human

be foreign to me.

Enlarge my heart

to embrace it all.

The final section, “Anchorites, Hermits, Solitaries,” considers those who are equipped to fight evil because of their long tests of monastic living. In the poem that begins the section, Thurston writes:

Solitude is not a place, but a way / that questions the cultural package … It cultivates stillness of heart … receives rather than imposes … lives richly on next to nothing.

I’ve read through this book several times over the past few years. It’s a different experience to read in a pandemic, when shutdowns and work-from-home orders gave us sudden experience in living alone like an anchorite, or living in something like a monastic community, in place all day long with people we love but don’t always like. Regardless of one’s faith, then, this book might offer something for seekers trying to learn interior strength in frighteningly uncertain times, as well as good company on the journey of practicing silence.

Finally, while there’s much about the life of the mind here, there is embodiment throughout. The poem “The Sixth Day” offers a sort of lectio:

No one else can teach you

to read the book of your body.

You must learn its language.

Trust it speaks truth

and soar on the strength of your scars.

Trust it speaks truth

and wear your wounds as wings.

Laura Lynn Brown is a writer, editor and teacher living in Pittsburgh after 20 years working at an Arkansas newspaper. A native of Bridgeport, she worked briefly for the Wheeling News-Register and The Times Leader and earned an MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Pittsburgh, where she now teaches composition part-time. Her first book is “Everything That Makes You Mom: A Bouquet of Memories.” She grew up riding the bus to Wheeling, eating at Hamburger Inn and Pappas Beef House, perusing the office supplies at Murphy’s Five and Ten, going to plays at Towngate Theater and finding treasures at Anne’s Corner on the Market.