The One-ness of Silence
Fr Laurence Freeman OSB
Summary of a talk given at
Westminster Cathedral Hall, 17 December 2007.
It is based on notes made by a member of the Silence in
the City team, and is included here with Fr Laurence's
Twenty-five years ago John Main said the most important
thing for people of our time to accomplish is to recover the
experience and meaning of silence. Today it remains
urgently necessary to rediscover the contemplative dimension
of Christianity, and we can do so by experiencing the power
and meaning of silence.
Silence is not an absence, nor a canvas waiting to be
filled. It is not threatening, but something deeply
attuned to our humanity.
Simply talking about silence can be dangerous, so we shall
shortly be doing the work of silence as well: I shall be
offering you a way of entering into the experience of
Jesus’ prayer for unity
Jesus’ view of his own mission is contained in his great
prayer for unity in John 17: “I in them and thou in me, that
they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know
that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast
loved me.” The heart of the Gospel is the mystery of
Both young and old ask, “What is the meaning of my life?”
Jesus’ prayer suggests an answer: if we are divided, we fail
to communicate what we’ve been given; in our own disunity,
we fail to witness to the unity of Jesus with the
Father. Without Oneness, it’s all words.
Oneness is the deepest longing of the human person: it is
why we seek relationships and love, the reason we make
families and community, and why we seek God. But at the
same time the longing for unity is paradoxical, because we
also want to be ourselves, to know who we are, to have our
own identity. So how do we balance One-ness and Self-hood?
There is nothing abstract about this question: it lies at
the heart of any serious relationship.
GPS technology is astonishing – but no less astonishing is
the dog that has been trained to pick up the warning signs
of its owner’s epileptic seizures, even before he or she is
aware of them. The dog’s only return is love. Which is the
greater wonder? We need the technology, but the
friendship between the human and the animal kingdom, and our
Oneness with nature, is the more wonderful.
We might ask: do we need virtual reality or reality?
Students search for relationships through the technology of
the Internet, but the more miraculous is to be found in the
Oneness of our own being; indeed in our whole human journey.
For the Christian, Jesus is the exemplar of human nature and
its journey of development. He fulfilled his mission
despite his early death. His story is one of quality not
quantity, of nature not technology.
Losing and finding
We begin in uterine Oneness, and in infancy, we can’t
distinguish ourselves from our surroundings. Similarly,
God is too close for us to know who he is.
Education, language and culture are vital for human
development, but at the same time, they cause us to fall
away from that early Oneness. We learn to say “I” and
“no”. The ego is the agent of separation, a separation
which is both painful and necessary. Every day, we lose
and find. The Gospel is full of parables about losing and
finding; the Prodigal Son is a prime example.
The loss of material things sets off a disproportionate
anxiety, because it touches off other experiences of loss
and unfinished grief.
The rhythm of losing and finding also goes on at a deeper
level, and Jesus says that we must in fact lose ourselves in
order to find who we really are. How many deaths do we
have to die?
When we understand that the losses are part of the process
of finding, we can say that we are on the spiritual journey.
The Gospels emphasise Jesus’ great loss, but he must have
experienced many previous ones. With his last words, he
enters the non-verbal silence of the cross. At that moment,
God became utterly distant. Jesus experienced a moment of
confusion of identity: so who am I? If that had been the
end, it would all have been meaningless, but the
Resurrection brought him to a post-verbal silence. Meister
Eckhart said that nothing is so like God as silence.
The quest for Oneness
The quest for Oneness lies at the heart of the human
journey. By going through the death of the self, we
reach a non-dual state. I am, but am no longer who or
what I thought I was. We no longer cling: you can only
cling to what you are separate from.
In non-duality there is not one, and not two. The Trinity
represents the non-duality of God. The goal of the human
journey is to experience that non-duality. The Desert
Fathers spoke of man becoming God in a second Oneness, in
which words are unnecessary because there is no audience.
We are invited to reflect on our own experience of loss and
the healing and growth that can come from it.
This contemplative understanding is essential for the
Church, so we don’t become congregations of fear and
separation. In this contemplative tradition, we come to
see Christ as our true self. Each congregation and each
person becomes the whole Christ.
The practical consequences: learning to meditate
If this contemplative understanding of the human journey is
right, what are the practical consequences?
In a period of religious confusion, many seek the experience
of Oneness through ecstasy: to take me out of
myself. However, the technologies of ecstasy lead to
addiction. We need to be able to say: there’s another way,
i.e. the way of silence.
Our desire to see God as an object is a barrier. We can
never see God as an object: we can only know him by sharing
in the divine self-knowledge. Unless we go through the loss
of the ego we cannot find the Oneness of the self. The
traditional teachings are full of paradox. The fact that we
can’t know God with the mind shows that we have to go by way
of the heart, i.e. meditation, as in the Cloud of Unknowing,
which describes meditation as “the work of one-ing”.
There are different levels:
A one-ing with ourselves, a personal
integration and healing, which involves learning to bring
our past safely into our present.
In this work, we’re not looking for ecstasy, for visions, or
for mystical experiences, but for growth in all three areas
of our daily life.
A one-ing with others, in which we no longer fear the
stranger, and where compassion and justice begin.
And a one-ing with God, the ground of our being.
How do we know we’re making progress, and why do we keep
meditating? Because we are changing, becoming one, and the
change is manifesting itself in all areas of our
life. It shows in how we react to the pain and the
All forms of prayer lead to contemplation: any expression of
the depths of our being leads us towards the experience of
the Oneness of contemplation. This is a totally natural
process, but it still needs to be learned; and all learning
creates a new person. By learning the language of silence,
through meditation, we become different people.
And we learn to meditate by meditating: no amount of reading
and talking will teach it.
The prayer of the heart is simply taught. We need to be
physically silent: then begin the interior work. Sit
upright, with the eyes closed: then let go of the constant
stream of thoughts and feelings. We’re not trying to
change anything, only take our attention off the stream of
thoughts. We exercise our capacity to choose what we
pay attention to. We’re not turning off the TV of our
minds, nor replacing one thought with another. The
method is very simple: it’s a matter of staying with a
single word of phrase, a mantra, saying it continuously, and
of returning to it when the mind has wandered off (this
alone is a quick route to humility!) The mantra takes
root in the heart and the consciousness, and begins to arise
spontaneously. We become conscious of the sacrament of
“Maranatha” – “Come, Lord” is the oldest Christian prayer
(though we don’t think about its meaning). It is a way
of letting go of all our thoughts. We say it silently;
we listen to it as we say it, gently, faithfully,
attentively (“with faith and love”). We let all other
thoughts go, and find something greater.
Page updated by hn on 19 January 2013