The Social Justice of Silence

by Brian Cole

“The grace of Easter is a great silence, an immense tranquility, and a clean taste in your soul. It is the taste of heaven, but not the heaven of some wild exaltation. The Easter of the soul is not riot and drunkenness of spirit, but a discovery of order—above all, order—a discovery of God and all things in him. This is a wine without intoxication, a joy that has no poison hidden in it. It is life without death.”

-The Sign of Jonas by Thomas Merton

In case you haven’t heard, silence is in right now. Especially for Episcopalians, there’s no prayer like Centering Prayer.

I say this as one who practices Centering Prayer, often embodying the stereotype—Buddhist bell by my Bible, with icons and unscented candles all at the ready, inviting the small circle that gathers each week at my church into silence. They will know we are Christians because our eyes are shut and we are sitting straight up in our chairs, right?

There is much to commend regarding silence and the use of silence in prayer. However, a recent a Sunday New York Times Magazine article from March 26, 2015 entitled, “Inside America’s Toughest Federal Prison,” was an important reminder that the setting for silence is crucial. Silence, as it is experienced in solitary confinement, as a form of punishment, is damaging and degrading. Over time, the mental health of a person subjected to solitary confinement is severely put at risk.

Silence that is isolating, that cuts us off from community, that reminds us of deep loneliness or longing, that is forced on us without knowledge of when it will cease, is no grace. Rather, it is a hell without noise.

The silence that heals, that calls out the “grace of Easter” mentioned in Merton’s writing, is available to us only when freedom is also present.

The use and abuse of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons is not a “time out” in order for reflection on behavior. Rather, it destroys time, and degrades the person made in the image of God, regardless of what wrong they have committed.

This Easter season, as I sit in silence with others for Centering Prayer in common space, I am particularly mindful of the luxury of the act. I know when the silence will begin. And because I keep one eye on the watch, I know when it will end.

When the silence ends, it will still be Easter. However, where silence is used to hurt and harm, the Resurrection must seem like some far-off dream, only offered to the lucky few.

Consider your neighborhood, parish, and the places you travel during the week. Who do you know that lives alone and is cut off from community, whose silence is not freeing, but imprisoning? What acts can you offer to share with them the great silence of Easter (which may include a conversation with them)?

3 thoughts on “The Social Justice of Silence

  1. Barbara

    Great post; thanks for this important perspective.

    I love the Merton quote, too. Easter really is like that, for me.

  2. Lucy Porter

    For me, retirement has often been a time of involuntary silence. Several chronic illnesses keep me at home much of the time, and when I am relatively well, there are fewer opportunities to serve God and humanity than I would prefer. As a result, I really resonated with your post today. I find myself led to pray for those whose solitude is imposed as punishment for crime. May God visit their cells with healing and salvation.

  3. Randolph Rossi

    As a Christian, I do believe in forgiveness but the individuals in the Federal Max Prison for the most part have perpetuated the most heinous crimes and would have been executed if not for a juries misguided belief that these animals do not fit the criteria for death. I am tired of hearing about the “poor inmates” when short notice is given to their victims and their victimized survivors and families.

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