Publisher: Bloomsbury Continuum (13 Sep 2012)
Hardcover: 224 pages
“I always think of silence as a flower bed out of which beautiful things can grow... The flower bed in our age is full of weeds because of the chatter that goes on all the time, but in a concert hall, the weeds are not there, it’s one of the very few places in the West where you can experience profound silence.”
This is not the appreciation of silence which is normally expected from a professional musician at the Royal College of Music. Yet a composer, conductor, instrumentalist and a singer require a profound understanding of silence. There is a fundamental need to value moments of silence if music is to make sense to its creators and its audience.
The Power of Silence: the riches that lie within enables people and groups with whom most of us rarely, if ever, come into contact, to reveal their appreciation of the importance of silence. Staff and students of the Royal College of Music, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, RADA, a psychotherapist, Trappist monks, devotees of Transcendental Meditation, Quakers, a convicted murderer and the Chief Rabbi are amongst the voices in the beautiful tapestry of silence presented within the pages of this book. From the bustle and noise of overcrowded Indian cities, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu scholars speak of the silence where they discover themselves, but, more importantly, find themselves before God. Sometimes that means keeping silence for several years during which there might be only occasional glimpses of that intimate encounter which makes the self-sacrifice worthwhile.
Turner visits Gethsemane, the Trappist monastery made famous because of Thomas Merton. There he finds busy people searching for that profound inner silence which is both revelatory and life-changing. Far from being an imposition, silence is both a thirst and a meeting-place between the human and the Divine. He discovers the same quest in visiting a Coptic monastery in the Egyptian desert. There he speaks to hermits who are so joy-filled that one admits to having closed the windows and door of his room lest he disturb the other monks by his shout of joy.
The Power of Silence contains some startling contrasts. Turner shows how, through meditation and the practice of Zen Buddhism, a group of varied individuals meeting in London and a man serving a life sentence for murder within a Scottish prison have all transformed their lives. The former murderer explained: “I now know that there is a purpose to my life, which is to be the best possible human being I can be, and to treat everyone as I would want to be treated myself. I am a completely different person than [sic] the man who walked in through that prison door.” The ‘still small voice’ of God slips into the silent self-emptying search for self-understanding.
An equally touching interview in this book is where Turner interviews a Christian and a Muslim in Beirut, both of them self-confessedly guilty of multiple atrocities and yet now working for peace and reconciliation within and between their own communities. Things changed when Christians and Muslims first started to come together, sitting in silence and gradually searching for understanding and reconciliation. “I couldn’t bring back to life all those who were killed in battle with me, but I decided that I had to try to make sure that such things never happened again in my country... A silent time gives a person many advantages. It lights a candle in your dark spirit. It gives you a space in which your spirit can renew itself.”
Turner quotes Jonathon Sacks, Britain’s Chief Rabbi: “God speaks in silence. We have to create a silence in the soul so that we can hear Him listening to us and speaking in a faint way... Modern life does not give us enough time for silence. We have to listen to hear the music beneath the noise. That’s what I think religious faith is about, the ability to hear the music beneath the noise.”
Yet silence is not simply a religious need. In a fascinating chapter, we hear from psychologists and counsellors of the importance of silence in their work, where it is a tool and a process on the path towards reconciliation and wholeness. We then move to the theatre and the vast psychological impact of silence on the audience. Sir John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson were masters in its employment and, as a teacher at RADA, explains, “The issue of silence is always on the table... because actors are trading in silence as much as in speech. From the moment a curtain goes up, they have to be attuned to silence as well as words, so we spend a lot of time getting them to learn how to do nothing and say nothing while they are on stage.”
The Power of Silence is a journey towards a deeper realisation of the vital part which silence plays in the lives of very different people. From start to finish, this is a book which the author obviously enjoyed writing, but in which he also found more than enough food for thought. Although Turner states quite openly that, in exploring silence, he undertook many different types of journey, both geographically and spiritually, there is also a sense that he learned much in the process and did not start writing until he himself felt enriched by silence. Just as the book repeats, time and again, that silence awaits ‘the right moment’ for its breaking, so Turner reflected, presumably in silence, before starting to write. By waiting for ‘the right moment’, he has produced something worth reading and which will appeal to a wide audience.
Turner has worked for The Scotsman, The Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph. He was the BBC’s first Economics correspondent. He has learned his craft. Thus The Power of Silence combines a friendly, personal tone with good research and a sense of authority. Perhaps the contents of this book are best summarised by a quote from one of the Coptic monks whom Turner interviewed in Egypt: “We have a saying. ‘Shut down your mouth to let your heart talk and then shut down your heart to let God speak.’ So it is lips, heart, God. If we don’t speak in our hearts with God, then silence is nothing.” When I reached the last page of The Power of Silence: the riches that lie within, it was with genuine regret that I closed the book.