Is Silence a Luxury?

Volume 52, Issue 1, Michael J. Crosbie

The Patheos columnist Carl McColman wrote recently about the value of silence. His insights into the choice to be quiet seem particularly relevant to the topic of this issue—the creation and experience of environments for retreat. McColman’s realization that silence is a choice not available to everyone dawned on him while he was talking to a colleague who ministers to people in prisons and those who live on the street. She reflected on the fact that these people do not have the choice of silence. They can never capture a moment that is their own for contemplation. McColman concludes that the choice of silence is actually a luxury. One needs a certain control over the environment in which one exists to make silence possible. Contemplation, meditation, and reflection are indulgences enjoyed by relatively few in the world. As McColman writes: “…contemplative practice presupposes that we have resources at our disposal—for example, the leisure time to devote a half hour or more each day to silence, and the psycho-emotional maturity to engage in such a discipline in a healthy way.”

One could extend this critique of silence to other corners of our spiritual lives. For example, isn’t a comfortable place in which to worship—unharassed and in safety—an option available only to those who have the wherewithal to build in places in which sacred space is uncontested? Richard Vosko writes in this issue (his article appears on page 30) that sacred space is a product of what happens to people in the space, not inherent in the space itself. Sacredness depends upon the spiritual transformation of human beings within a space. This suggests that the experience of the sacred does not depend upon space at all. Sacredness can be achieved wherever people of a faith community gather. In this view, sacred space is seen not as a privilege, but instead as a possibility even to those with little control over space itself—even contested space. But how?

In his article, McColman writes that he has come to the conclusion that contemplative spirituality “must be embedded in some form of social ministry—of building relationships with persons who may not have the privileges we enjoy.” How this plays out McColman leaves up to the reader. How might it transpire with the luxury of silence? Could each of us who has some measure of control over whether we choose silence or not share that luxury with others who lack such a choice? Isn’t the space of a church, a temple, or a mosque such a resource that could be shared with those outside the faith community? Don’t religious buildings that are open to anyone offer such possibilities? Whenever I am in a strange city, the chance to step inside a church, a temple, or a mosque to sit quietly for a few moments, shielded from the din of the city beyond its walls, is always a welcomed luxury.

The issues of safety and security call such a luxury into question. By its very nature, contested sacred space is one in which control is disputed and clashes are likely. It cannot be shared without the decision by those human beings involved to reconcile its control. And that reconciliation itself can be seen as a sacred act.

Michael J. Crosbie is the Editor-in-Chief of Faith & Form and can be reached by email at

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