I have been thinking a lot about silence. Which is perhaps an ironic way to begin a new blog.

Silence might be one of the most profound magical tools but it is also impossible.

Erling Kagge points out in his book on Silence that even if you were placed in the vacuum of space, you would still ‘hear’ the hiss of your own breath, the percussion of your heart, the crackle of your saliva and the gulp of your swallowing. Part of the interiority that comes with not speaking for protracted times is precisely the awareness of our bodies which includes their internal sounds. Kagge’s own experience of silence began whilst walking in Antarctica where, when the wind drops, the silence can be haunting and broad. But it is never total. In any popular sense the word, silence, is used to mean a complete absence of sound, but it is precisely that which is impossible.

There are two kinds of silence useful and necessary in magic. There is a silence of expectation and a silence of being.

A silence of expectation is like that of the Quakers, a silence which may be profound, and lengthy, but is awaiting its own end, it is waiting for The Spirit to speak (or in our case perhaps, a spirit), it is a silence of listening.

Listening in silence for spiritual revelation, allowing space for visions to be seen and voices heard is something which many of the writers and users of the grimoires would have completely understood. The lengthy invocation comes to an end and the magical rite falls silent. It has to. There has to be a pregnant pause, thick with expectation that the conversation will be joined. Grimoire invocations can last many hours and if a significant part of that time isn’t held in silence by the magician, it is likely they will miss the voice that speaks to them out of the dark. There may be something to be said for the contrast of silence too. The grimoires and magical books are full of words: lots and lots of words. Often invocations are energetic, imploring, demanding, emotional affairs. The weaving of words and silence is a part of the art.

A silence of being is a different order of silence. This is silence as an ascetic practice. Ascetic disciplines like fasting, study, or physical trials are deliberate restrictions of sensory pleasures. In this case the pleasures of speech, song, and conversation. The exemplar here is the Trappist monk, the vowed silence. This is not a silence which expects to be broken. It is the silence of walking alone through the forest or over the plains. It is intentional. It is an inner silence as well as an outer one, in which even the words of thought are silenced.

“To deliver oneself up, to hand oneself over, entrust oneself completely to the silence of a wide landscape of woods and hills, or sea, or desert; to sit still while the sun comes up over that land and fills its silences with light. To pray and work in the morning and to labor and rest in the afternoon, and to sit still again in meditation in the evening when night falls upon that land and when the silence fills itself with darkness and with stars. This is a true and special vocation. There are few who are willing to belong completely to such silence, to let it soak into their bones, to breathe nothing but silence, to feed on silence, and to turn the very substance of their life into a living and vigilant silence.” Thomas Merton. from ‘Thoughts on Solitude’

Some years ago I was in the habit of making silent retreats a couple of times a year, usually for a week. Silence of that sort, even in company when taking meals or doing communal work, is something which makes a profound change in the psyche. A week of silence which became deeper and deeper as the days go by was accompanied by a huge surge in spirit-ual activity. I am convinced that however spirits perceive us (and there is a book to be written on just that topic), ascetic practices make us more visible, perhaps more noticeable to them. The best description I have to offer is that silence, fasting, bodily exertion and so on are noise reduction techniques. I am sure this is why beginners in meditation often notice an increase in strange occurrences, synchronicities and heightened levels of intuition and perception: because the spirits around them are beginning to ‘see’ them.

It should be said, particularly as we come to the end of a global pandemic which has been combatted in large part by keeping people at home: millions of people have an everyday experience of silence which they would not have wished for. This has been true much longer for large sections of the population such as the elderly living alone and those with isolating mental illnesses. Often books of spirituality frame silence (perhaps in mindfulness or meditation practice) as some kind of rebellion against an overly-busy, overly-noisy world. It needs to be said clearly that there is no moral good inherent to silence, but rather that good can come of its deliberate practice.  

St Anthony the Great was one of the earliest saints of Christianity. He was a hermit, known as one of the Desert Fathers. The ‘Temptations of St Anthony’ are vividly displayed in western art but they are largely the product of later medieval imaginations. However, Anthony did go into the desert in search of silence. There he found the devil, strange creatures and men of power. Even in the less swollen early versions, any magically operant reader will recognise a story of powerful spirit encounters.

“Who sits in solitude and is quiet hath escaped from three wars: hearing, speaking, seeing; yet against one thing shall he continually battle: that is, his own heart.” – St Anthony the Great

Ascetic practices are usually presented as making it easier for us to ‘see’. I think it might be the other way around: that they make us easier to ‘see’.