And silence is also a way of communicating. Galya Morrell, the child of nomadic Komi caribou herders, remembers her summer holidays with her grandparents on the great tundra.
They didn’t talk much. At first, she took this as a sign that they were angry with her. But she began to understand that words were not the only way of speaking. When the air is so cold it hurts to speak, and your body is swathed in furs, there are better ways to get your message across. “The hunter does better to listen than to talk,” she says. “Animals hear everything. So hunters talk in total silence. Words are so primitive. There are so many more forms of communication that we as humans can use, using our bodies, our faces, our spirits.”
When pregnant with her second child, Morrell – whose life has seen her embrace roles including adventure artist, former Red Army officer, journalist and Arctic traveller – found herself alone in a settlement in the high Arctic. The inhabitants had all left to hunt. Wandering around the village, she spotted a movement by the dustbins. A polar bear. The two creatures looked at each other.
“In that moment I heard the silence of the entire world,” Morrell remembers, 23 years later. “I could have been eaten in a second. Nobody could have done anything about it. I could not call for help because the village was empty. I couldn’t do anything with words.”
In the pure silence, Morell heard nothing except three heartbeats – the bear’s, her own and that of her unborn child. Then the bear walked away. “I’ve never heard anything stronger, before or since, than that silence,” she says.
A silence of fear
Yet silence is not always golden. There’s a difference, says Diarmuid McCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at the University of Oxford and the author of Silence: A Christian History, between the kind of fertile silence that allows thought and spirituality to flourish, and the kind which smothers those things.
“Growing up as a gay teenager in the 1960s, I’m very aware of the silences that were necessary in those days,” he says. “Because it was simply something you didn’t talk about. And so I could see that society was constructed on certain silences which, if you had ears to hear, were very loud indeed.”
How can you tell the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ silence? “In the words of Our Lord: ‘Ye shall know them by their fruits’,” says McCulloch. “The moment that silence produces fear, misery and emotional damage, it’s doing a bad job. Or when it’s associated with inappropriate use of power, bullying, and silencing voices which need to be heard, then it’s bad. Sometimes supposedly good reasons are put forward for being silent. That’s when every individual has to make their own decision and try and exercise moral discernment.”
Silence is good and bad; quiet and loud. It is the ice that creaks and cracks and sings to Galya Morrell as she dances on the tundra to an audience of nobody. It’s the voices of the people John Francis met on his 17-year journey, who taught him, he says, that we are all part of this thing we call “the environment”. It’s the music of rustling concert programmes, of birdsong outside the window of Delaware House. It is, as McCulloch puts it, “partly the absence of words, but partly the transcendence of words”. It’s a life and death drama in the Arctic, a trek across the wilderness, a community that refuses to acknowledge a truth. “Silence isn’t necessarily not speaking,” says Francis. “It’s something else. And that’s for us to discover.”
And that journey towards discovery is one that everyone can make – and one, perhaps, that everyone needs. “Everywhere we go, in all walks of life, there is noise of some sort,” says Mr Carter. “I don’t just mean physical noise, either. Texts and emails are all part of a world which is increasingly noisy in the widest sense. In my meditation last term, I wanted to draw students’ attention to the daily silence, this unique moment, and to the importance silence can have in nurturing them. I was suggesting that perhaps silence and being still and being within oneself are important elements in finding out who we are.”