A Place for Silence in the Face of Horror

We do need to take action in the face of tragedy. We do need to talk and grieve together, to support one another and ponder next steps. Perhaps, though, silence in the aftermath may enable us to approach it all from a different place.
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Somewhere in the past few days, amid the lingering shock over the horror in Newtown, I had to shut off the news. I wonder whether that gut instinct holds a nugget of wisdom that might help us through the aftermath of tragedies like this.

Our reactions in the aftermath are all too familiar. Some of them come straight from our DNA. We recoil in shock. We cry. We offer prayer and condolence, love and light to all who have suffered. We human beings could hardly do otherwise. Nor should we.

We also do some other things that, immediately after a tragedy, may be less productive. We rage about guns or defend them. We judge the parents of the shooters. We (and this means me) stare transfixed at the news and search out every new detail, particularly about the perpetrator, in an effort to answer the big question: Why? We rehash our learning and shock and horror repeatedly in conversations and tweets and posts.

In other words, we generate a lot of output, and we absorb a lot of input.

I have spent some years promoting dialogue across divides. So of course, I know that dialogue is essential as we make sense of what happened -- and particularly of what we, collectively, will do in response. But in the hours and even days after these horrors, I wonder about the value of another response entirely.


Monks and mystics have savored the value of silence for millennia. In silent prayer, they (and we who follow their practice) simply sit, kneel or stand, with minds clear and hearts wide open, in the presence of God. This silence brings different things at different times. Sometimes it begins to heal our deepest wounds. Sometimes it communicates the divine presence, the sure sense that we need never be alone. Sometimes it changes us from the inside out so we look more like God -- with less self-absorption and more compassion, less conflict and more reconciliation.

But why silence in the face of horror? Because it gives us a safe space to simply be present to it all: to all that has happened, to our shock and grief and rage, to those who have suffered, to the God who remains stubbornly silent about the whys but hates death and knows suffering firsthand. Silence gives us room to let it all be and to breathe.

Often, the surprise of silence is what emerges within it. Our feelings have a way of sorting themselves out. Insight and wisdom may arise. We might sense the common humanity that binds us all (common to the perpetrator and the victim), the brokenness within all of us, new levels of compassion that we never knew we had.

Then, when we go forth from the silence, we may approach issues from a deeper place in our mind and our spirit -- a place where we can appreciate the complexity and nuance of the issue before us, a place of deep compassion for everyone touched by the tragedy, a place from which we can speak with greater wisdom to the next steps that we, collectively, must take.

The monks at Holy Cross Monastery (where I am an associate) have a practice of praying in silence, amid the tolling of a single bell, when the execution of someone on death row is about to take place. They pray for everyone involved: the victim and the families, to be sure, but also the inmate and the executioners.

I don't think it's an accident that these monks have made silence a living practice in their lives. Day by day, they encounter the God of compassion in silence, with hearts wide open, and that compassion cannot help to spill over. As a result, during that silence in the chapel, they can encompass everyone in their prayers: those who have done evil, those victimized by evil, those who agree with them and those who disagree.

We do need to take action in the face of tragedy. We do need to talk and grieve together, to support one another and ponder next steps. Perhaps, though, silence in the aftermath may enable us to approach it all from a different place -- a place where we can access the wisdom and compassion that can help us address these tragedies, which leave such a profound mark on us all.

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