As I neared the end of this past semester, I knew that I would soon say goodbye to my sweet friend Emily, who just left for Paris for a year (!!) and won’t be back until after I graduate. So reflecting back over the precious year and a half of our friendship, I remembered an experience that Emily and I shared together, which I had intended to blog about for quite some time. So I wrote this late one night when I should have been working on final papers, and am finally getting around to posting it.
Last semester, silence was a significant theme in my spiritual life. I was reading The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen. I found Nouwen’s thoughts on silence to be so profound that I began to practice it as a discipline, first in silent prayer. I wondered what it would be like to spend time with someone else in silence, but I imagined that it would be hideously awkward. Who in the world would I ask to do such a strange thing? Of course Emily was the first person who came to mind – Emily who is amazing at hospitality and quality time, who finds joy in simplicity and excitement in trying new things, whose enthusiasm is contagious, who loves me in spite of my weirdness. So I asked Emily if she would be willing to spend some time with me in silence. Instead of balking at the strangeness of the request, she gladly agreed.
So we walked downtown together to get tea and breakfast, and we spoke only to order our food. Once we had finished eating, after perhaps an hour of quiet togetherness, we broke the silence to talk about our experience of it. Here are a few of the observations I made from our time together.
First, as I had anticipated, it made me pretty uncomfortable at first. Should I look at her, or at my feet? Was I walking too fast? Too slow? Once we got to the restaurant, I wondered if other people noticed us or found our silence strange. Did our waitress think we were mad at each other? Perhaps most uncomfortable of all, I found that eye contact felt painfully vulnerable. As time went on, though, it became easier. And the moments in which we caught the other’s gaze, smiled, and didn’t hurry to glance away – those were truly special moments. It happened almost exactly as Nouwen describes his own experience in his book Reaching Out: “Once in a while we looked at each other with the beginning of a smile pushing away the last remnants of fear and suspicion. It seemed that while the silence grew deeper around us we became more and more aware of a presence embracing both of us.” The world teaches us from a young age that vulnerability is exploited. Yet when we can open ourselves up to another – and perhaps silence can feel even more vulnerable than oversharing – when we feel as though our souls are laid bare to another and we are fully seen, fully known, and fully accepted – it may well be one of the most satisfying experiences of friendship one can have.
Second, I was able to appreciate Emily’s soul beauty in a way that I hadn’t before. Because I wasn’t focused on what either of us was saying, I was free to focus on her being – her grace, the warmth and hospitality of her smile, her sense of being completely at peace in her surroundings – all the things I love most about her. I was able to absorb all of this, savoring and thanking God for these details. Unashamedly appreciating someone in such depth, I think, is in itself a prayer.
Third, as we sat together in silence, time seemed rich and unhurried. It felt like we had all the time in the world, and it was deeper somehow, as if it changed the focus of our togetherness from “catching up” – which in itself seems to imply a hurriedness, a deficit of time. Instead, we were making space just to be with one another.
Finally, the moment that stayed with me the most was our silent gesture of sharing food with one another. I broke a piece off of my strawberry muffin to share with her, and we made eye contact as she accepted it and we ate together. She began to cut a piece off of her egg and avocado sandwich. Recognizing that it was for me, my typical reaction would have been to say “Oh no, that’s ok” and then to say “thank you” when she gave it to me anyway, thus devaluing the gift. This time, I said neither. As she had just done, I accepted it silently, gratefully, and we smiled at each other in mutual acknowledgement of the exchange. Nouwen explains that words are important only insofar as they convey a concept, but in our society we tend to elevate the importance of the words themselves. There is a depth that is lost when we shorthand relational exchanges with phrases that can so easily become trite – “I love you,” “thank you,” et cetera. Slowing down enough to communicate wordlessly deepens our appreciation of the other, creates intimacy, and conveys with greater sincerity what it is that we feel. Often we try to use words as a shortcut to intimacy, but maybe they actually distract us from what it is we are looking for.
Because the discomfort of silence forces us to confront our own insecurities, anxieties, and doubts, we often miss out on what it offers us in return. Maybe it is the solution to our hurriedness. Maybe it is a hidden door to intimacy with God and with others. Maybe if we spent time in silence, we would better know ourselves and our place in this world in which we live.
And perhaps, we might receive an unexpected gift.