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Caring for Words: Cherish Silence


This is the last installment of our “Caring for Words” book club. Thank you so much to all the writers, discussers, and readers who participated, and may God help us all to be excellent stewards of the gift of language. – Scott Moncrieff

Making room for silence in a cacophonous world is hard. Anyone reading this can recite their own litany of noise: kids, jobs, mortgages, relatives, television. The list goes on and on. Yet, it is precisely in this space that one should be especially purposeful about cultivating silence because silence is all the more meaningful amidst the chaos. Marilyn McEntyre’s challenge to the reader in this week’s chapter is to “cherish silence,” even in a world that does not value this principle. The silence that she writes of is not a passive, compliant state, however. Rather, silence can be a source of strength and wisdom. McEntyre’s concerns in this chapter have everything to do with the community and conversation that she evokes throughout her book, and this chapter functions as the ‘Sabbath’ of her book, the time carved out for rest and reflection.She beautifully suggests here that, following the rhythmic movement of the natural world, our lives, our conversations, and our words need these fallow periods before we can burst forth with life.

In my classroom, I seek to cultivate spaces of silence and reflection as a means of creating community and conversation. When tensions mount regarding a controversial topic or sensitive issue, I ask my students to pause and reflect, then to write through it. What happens in this space is that students must reckon with their desire to be right, to be heard. They have to situate their thought or idea in a place of silence, and only once they have done that can discussion productively and compassionately resume. One of my favorite Bible texts, Psalm 4:4, instructs the reader to not dwell in a place of anger, but to “commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still.” In this verse, the Psalmist reminds us that finding the stillness and silent spaces in our lives allows us to work through our anger. Turning inward in order to commune or meditate can supplant the impulse to rash words or hasty action. 

As I’ve explored various exercises to cultivate these silences in my classroom, I’m led to reflect on how this practice could benefit our broader culture(s). What would happen if contemporary (not-so-)civil discourses participated in this culture of silence and reflection? How might one be able to still stand for beliefs, values, or ideas but do so in true conversation? Conversation means more than acknowledging the counterargument – a familiar freshman composition strategy. Productive conversation means not only acknowledging that other side but engaging with the so-called ‘opponent’ and treating that individual as an actual human being. To paraphrase the Prayer of St. Francis, it means seeking to understand rather than be understood. But if we are wrapped up in the noise, in the blather of our own words, we cannot get to that place of understanding,

The strength that can be found in our silences, in the spaces between our words, is at heart the promise of the Sabbath. As McEntyre writes, silence works against the gospel of productivity, the idea that all we do must fulfill a utilitarian purpose. She writes that “Renewal time, whether for the soil or for relationship or for interior life – the time when we stop, let be, withdraw, do nothing, say nothing – is too frequently redefined as a wasted asset. So we live impoverished, deprived of the day that enriches the rest of the week or the silence that frames and illuminates our reading and our speech” (226). The Old Testament concept of “Sabbathing” has gained traction in the popular press recently as a counterbalance to the 24/7 rat race that defines modern life. Sabbathing is endorsed from pulpits and papers as a break from not just work, but also technology, media, consumption of all types. The idea of the Sabbath is to revive, to restore, to bring the individual back to not only her Creator, but also her family, her community, her centering influences. The Sabbath is our renewal time. 

Significantly, McEntyre’s meditation on silence arrives at the end of her book, after all the words. It functions as the “Sabbath” found at the end of her thought-provoking text. Only after we have told our stories, conversed, written, and prayed are we ready to embrace the silence. I end with Hamlet, in fact with Hamlet’s final words to which McEntyre alludes in her chapter: “The rest is silence.” After a play full of words, words, words, Prince Hamlet delivers these words on his deathbed. The rest is silence. After all that is said and done, all that is left is the silence. The time needed for renewal, for rejuvenation, for letting be requires this silence, or as McEntyre puts it, “Silence is the Sabbath we need. In silence we take our rest.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are some of the ways that you cut through the noise in your life in order to find a place of silence?
  2. McEntyre reminds us that poets and other writers fundamentally understand silence. These texts “[give] shape to the silence so that we may recognize it not as void or abyss but as a place to lie down in green pastures and be restored” (234). In your own readings, what texts – poetry or otherwise – have shaped silences in this way?
Kristin Denslow is a PhD candidate in English Literature at the University of Florida studying Shakespeare in film and media. She lives with her family in Green Bay, WI where she teaches writing and English courses at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies

February 24               

Why Worry About Words?

Scott Moncrieff, Andrews University

March 3         

Strategy 1: Love Words

Brooke Holland, Collegedale Academy

March 10               

Strategy 2: Tell the Truth

Beverly Matiko, Andrews University

March 17                   

Strategy 3: Don’t Tolerate Lies

Beverly Matiko, Andrews University

March 24              

Strategy 4: Read Well

Kellie Bond, Walla Walla University

March 31              

Strategy 5: Stay in Conversation

Mary Christian, Indiana University

April 7                       

Strategy 6: Share Stories

Jeanette Bryson, Andrews University

April 14                  

Strategy 7: Love the Long Sentence

Emily McArthur deCarvalho, University of California, Riverside

April 21                      

Strategy 8: Practice Poetry

Craig van Rooyen, San Luis Obispo, California

April 28                   

Strategy 9: Attend to Translation

Sarah Fusté, Berrien Springs, Michigan

May 5                          

Strategy 10: Play

Justina Clayburn, Andrews University

May 12                                    

Strategy 11: Pray

Catherine Tetz

May 19                      

Strategy 12: Cherish Silence

Kristin Denslow, University of Florida  



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