5:30ish am is one of my favorite times of the day. Friends and family members often balk when I mention that I like to get up so early. But, for me, there is something about the quiet dimly lit moments before the sunrise that centers me and enables me to feel more creative and alive. That is my time for reflection, for writing, for walking or running, and for gathering my whole self for the day.
Theologian Jana Bennett reminded me recently that quiet, time free from multitasking, is more than physically and physiologically invigorating. Silence opens one up to that which lies beyond the one’s own limits and connects with practices of peace and justice. She writes, “In silence, I divest of all my pride, faults, wrongdoings, but also my goods, my bests, the activities I do well.”
Bennett reflects on the importance of what she calls “Blessed Silence,” quiet and contemplation, in relation to the lived human experience of deafness. Without getting into the scholarly details, let me explain why making the connection between physically constructing spaces for silence and deafness is so personally compelling for me.
My father lost most of his hearing long before I was born. I have never really thought of his deafness as a disability or limitation because, from the perspective of his daughter, it is simply a part of his personhood. As a daughter, you just have to be more aware of your surroundings to maintain communication and connections with him by doing things like avoiding noisy restaurants for family dinners or dining at home to foster an environment for quiet conversation. Background noise creates the greatest problem. You have to learn to communicate differently by looking your parent directly in the eyes and waiting to make sure the spoken word is understood, writing down notes for important messages, or through email. One of the greatest things is that my dad loves technology–even at 87 years of age. I think it is liberating for him. He also loves silence and contemplation. In fact, my dad has spent a lifetime teaching himself and others to listen for and contemplate God’s voice in the silence.
Fortunately, most of the community that surrounds my dad is quite accepting of and patient with his deafness. However, I am very well aware that our society tends to focus on deafness as a loss, a limitation, even a distraction from God and community. I have witnessed times when people diminished my dad because of his hearing impairment. I recall one time that I took him to visit the doctor for a checkup after surgery. The doctor was trying to ask him questions while looking down at my dad’s feet. When my dad couldn’t quickly respond the doctor started to speak to him like a child as if deafness also meant that he could not comprehend the questions. In actuality, he just couldn’t hear them.
Bennett’s reflections on “Blessed Silence” deepen my understanding of the importance of intentionally and deliberately creating spaces for silence particularly for and with persons with hearing impairment. Silence and contemplation enable persons with hearing impairment to emerge out of the isolation our society imposes upon them and frees them from social attitudes that judge deafness only as loss and limitation. In this way, creating the space for silence helps to foster stronger personal relationships. Bennett also calls upon religious leaders to create space for silence because it nurtures more than just individual relationships; silence creates a more just community of faith.
Singing songs slowly, loud music, times reserved during worship and prayer for eyes to close, and responses made in unison such as “The Word of the Lord” after reading scripture may be experienced differently by persons with hearing impairment. I will admit that I have often used the subheading “Hearing the Word” in bulletins for worship and after thinking more carefully about the connection between silence and the experience of deafness with the practice of peace and justice I will reconsider the language I use in worship. In the context of religious ritual, spaces of silence remind all of us of the fact that God’s voice and words are not completely dependent upon our individual hearing, speech, or song. God’s voice is most palpable in new and creative relatedness and in deep communion.
I will always need the silence to start my day. Now I also understand more clearly just how much I also need silence to practice peace and justice. How do you create intentional space for silence and contemplation? When have you found deep communion in silence? When do you connect silence and contemplation with the practice of peace and justice? I hope you will share your stories and insight here.
 Jana Bennett, “Blessed Silence: Explorations in Christian Contemplation and Hearing Loss.” Journal of Moral Theology, Volume 6, Special Issue 2 (2017): 150.
 Ibid., 148.
Beautifully put, dear Elizabeth. I have embraced the practice of centering as a way of sustaining my work of advocacy as well as an indispensable way to keep myself open to deep listening of the journey of others, which I do as a counselor and spiritual director. I learned this basic spiritual practice in Seminary, from your dad, who was one of my most respected and beloved professors. I think the loudness of our era is not only impeding our ability to truly connect across the many divides, it is also truly reducing our ability to tune into what is most sacred and profound about our being human.