The euphoria of silence

Sara Maitland fell in love with silence while living alone in the countryside. She was in her late 40s and had been at the center of a noisy world most of her life: as one of six children and then as a vocal feminist and mother. In "A Book of Silence," published in October by Counterpoint Press, she describes her exploration of silence across the world in the Sinai desert, the Scottish hills and a remote cottage on the Isle of Skye. We asked her to explain the euphoria of being in the presence of silence.

GUEST BLOGGER: Sara Maitland

In September I went back to the Sinai desert. I wrote about my first visit there when I was researching some of the world's silent terrains. It was very good to be back.

Desert silence is unique for various reasons. There are few people and no roads. There is less wind, and fewer objects for the wind to move. The hotter and dryer the atmosphere the more it soaks up the energy of sound waves. And Sinai has been the place of an ancient silence of awe for all three of the Abrahamic faiths. Here Moses received the Law on Mount Horeb; here Elijah heard God in the "sound of sheer silence" (a better translation than the "still small voice".)

We were sleeping out on the desert floor. Through the night I would wake up to see the enormous stars wheel overhead, brighter than dreams and then fade slowly in the light before the dawn.

One morning, I wriggled out of my sleeping bag and walked up a slope of white sand. Our camp was nestled under a great sandstone escarpment - Sinai is a rocky mountainous desert - but I only had to walk about a hundred yards before the view opened out, enormous into the distance, an immense view of silent nothingness.

I sat and watched as the desert was washed from dusty beige to gold pink and the sky changed from dove grey to bright blue. Then without warning the sun pounced over the scarp and caught me in its sharp light and. . .and. . . something shifted, like a gear change.

Suddenly I am tiny and vulnerable in an enormous perilous place, and then I am welcomed into that space, at one with it. I am dissolved into it, without boundaries, connected to - and part of -- the cosmos itself. There is rhythm but no time or thought. There is acute awareness but no self-consciousness. There is euphoria but no agitation.

This is joy.

It is hard to tell exactly what is going on here; while you are in ecstasy you can't ask, and when it is over you can't tell. You are outside language and outside time. What I do know is that it is very good. It is a pure gift. It is now - only now.

It ends quite abruptly; someone moves in the camp. I return to myself, to the beauty of the morning, to the simple, now enhanced, pleasure of breakfast. There is a sense of loss, but it does not over-ride the beauty and pleasure of being there.

This joy is, for me, inextricably connected to silence and to enormous empty space - up mountains, on small islands and, above all, in the desert. I will go on hunting such joy, hoping for it, aware I cannot summon it, but can create a context for it, and knowing that it illuminates even the long spaces in between its gratuitous appearances. Silence sings silently and the world is glorious even in the face of its dark wounds.

I go rejoicing.

By Steven E. Levingston |  November 23, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Steven Levingston
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