Books and a Film: All About Silence

Explore the Heart of Contemplation With These Titles

I would love to attend the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin next month — if for no other reason than to be at the North American premiere of the movie In Pursuit of Silence. Here’s the latest trailer for this “meditative film about our relationship with sound and the impact of noise on our lives.”

So if you live in or near Austin, or are attending SXSW, go see this movie (they haven’t announced time and location yet, so keep an eye on the movie’s website for details.

In honor of In Pursuit of Silence, I thought I’d do something just for fun today — pull together a list of books with either the words “Silent” or “Silence” in the title. Some of these books I’ve already praised on this blog (or elsewhere online), others I haven’t read yet.

In other words, some of these books I can confidently say are wonderful, others are unknown quantities (at least to me). One title I myself wrote. I’ve set in bold a few books that are my personal favorites.

Most are spiritual or philosophical in nature, although representing a variety of traditions and perspectives. Three have the phrase “Silence of God” in the title — how cool is that?

So read with an inquiring mind and a discerning heart. If you have any suggestions of books that should be added to this list, let me know. And happy exploring!

  1. SilenceA Camaldolese Hermit, Silence: A Series of Conferences
  2. Alan Ecclestone, A Staircase for Silence
  3. Alexander Ryrie, Silent Waiting: The Biblical Roots of Contemplative Spirituality
  4. Alexander Ryrie, Wonderful Exchange: An Exploration of Silent Prayer
  5. Alice Borchard Greene, The Philosophy of Silence
  6. Anne D. Leclaire, Listening Below the Noise: A Meditation on the Practice of Silence
  7. Benignus O’Rourke, Finding Your Hidden Treasure: The Way of Silent Prayer
  8. Bieke Vandekerckhove, The Taste of Silence: How I Came to Be at Home with Myself
  9. Bruce Davis, Monastery Without Walls: Daily Life in the Silence
  10. Carl McColman, Befriending Silence: Discovering the Gifts of Cistercian Spirituality
  11. MolchanieCatherine Doherty, Molchanie: The Silence of God
  12. Cornelius Wencel, The Eremitic Life: Encountering God in Silence and Solitude
  13. Cyril Hepher, The Fellowship of Silence: Explorations in the Common Use of Prayer Without Words
  14. Cyril Hepher, The Fruits of Silence: Further Studies in the Common Use of Prayer Without Words, Together With Kindred Essays in Worship
  15. David G. Hackett, The Silent Dialogue: Zen Letters to a Trappist Monk
  16. Br. David Steindl-Rast, The Way of Silence: Engaging the Sacred in Daily Life
  17. Dainin Katagiri, Returning to Silence: Zen Practice in Daily Life
  18. Diarmaid MacCulloch, Silence: A Christian History
  19. Elias Marechal, Tears of an Innocent God: Conversations on Silence, Kindness and Prayer
  20. VoicesFrank Bianco, Voices of Silence: Lives of the Trappists Today
  21. Fred L. Holmes, The Voice of Trappist Silence
  22. George M. Foy, Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence
  23. George Prochnik, In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise
  24. Gregory Fruehwirth, Words for Silence: A Year of Contemplative Meditations
  25. Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Way of the Heart: Connecting with God Through Prayer, Wisdom and Silence
  26. James P. Carse, The Silence of God: Meditations on Prayer
  27. John Skinner, Hear Our Silence: A Portrait of the Carthusians
  28. Karl Rahner, Encounters with Silence
  29. Karmen MacKendrick, Immemorial Silence
  30. Kyriacos C. Markides, The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality
  31. Maggie Ross, Silence: A User’s Guide, Volume 1: Process
  32. FermorMaggie Ross, Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding
  33. Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation
  34. Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness and Contemplation
  35. Morton Kelsey, The Other Side of Silence: Meditation for the Twenty-First Century
  36. Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time to Keep Silence
  37. Raimundo Panikkar, The Silence of God: The Answer of the Buddha
  38. Richard Rohr, Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation
  39. Robert Llewelyn, Circles of Silence: Explorations in Prayer with Julian Meetings
  40. Robert Sardello, Silence: The Mystery of Wholeness
  41. Rowan Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert
  42. Ruth Haley Barton, Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence
  43. MaitlandSara Maitland, A Book of Silence
  44. Susan Tiberghien, Circling to the Center: One Woman’s Encounter with Silent Prayer
  45. Susan Walker: Speaking of Silence: Christians and Buddhists on the Contemplative Way
  46. Thich Nhat Hanh, Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise
  47. Thomas Merton, Dialogues with Silence: Prayers and Drawings
  48. Thomas Merton, Echoing Silence: On the Vocation of Writing
  49. Thomas Merton, The Silent Life
  50. William H. Shannon, Silence on Fire: Prayer of Awareness
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Author of Befriending Silence, Christian Mystics, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Catechist. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

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11 thoughts on “Books and a Film: All About Silence

  1. What a great list. Thank you so much!

    One of my favorites – though not explicitly about contemplative practice, but inspired by a kind of Thomas Merton-ish Zen – is John Cage’s “Silence: Lectures and Writings.” Some of you may know about his famous (infamous?) musical composition entitled “4’33”. The pianist, dressed in a tuxedo, walks on stage, sits at the piano, takes out a stopwatch and sits there for – yes, four minutes and 33 seconds. The “silence” of the piano is in marked contrast to the 1950s audiences uncomfortable fidgeting as they tried to figure out what was happening. Cage’s idea was that there is always “silence” everywhere as a kind of background – or really, the substance of all sound.

    Several years after the premiere of that piece, Cage reached an impasse as a composer. If all sounds that occurred during the silence of the pianist were potentially “music”, then all sounds everywhere – heard with the inner ear – are music; then what’s the point of composing?

    Somehow, a few years after that, he got back into the idea that there was still a legitimate place for the composer to take from the infinite storehouse of music/sounds and shape them in a particular way, though he often chose dice throwing or other means of “allowing” the shaping to occur without the interference of the analytic mind; yet another way he sought to integrate contemplation with musical composition.

    Woven through the book are marvelous anecdotes from Cage’s life. I love the one where he has gone to see Krishnamurti speak at Carnegie Hall. I saw Krishnamurti there some 20 years later and Cage’s description sounds remarkably similar – Krishnamurti simply sat on a chair in the middle of the stage, sitting on his hands, and spoke in a soft, lilting though somewhat stern voice.

    At one point, as Cage recounts the story, Krishnamurti was saying, “You must bring complete attention to this moment, not thinking of other things, letting your mind wander here and there, but rather, bring a choiceless awareness to all that you are experiencing. You are simply aware, not taking notes or in some other way dividing your mind between this and some other preoccupation.”

    Cage noticed, as Krishnamurti was speaking, that the woman next to him was furiously writing down what Krishnamurti was saying. Unable to resist, he gently asked her, “Did you hear what Krishnamurti was saying about note taking?”

    The woman paused, let her eyes skim through the page she was writing, and finally exclaimed, “Why yes. I have it right here in my notes.”

  2. Carl,
    Your list includes The Taste of Silence: How I Came to Be at Home with Myself by Bieke Vandekerckhove. Three weeks ago I had never heard of the book. Then, while doing sermon prep, I visited the SLU Jesuit website that offers spiritual, historical and exegetical insights into the lessons in the weekly lectionary. In his always useful column on that site, and in a departure from his usual fare, Ronald Rolheiser listed his top books for 2015 instead of writing about the readings. Included on his list was The Taste of Silence. The author was diagnosed with ALS at 19 years old, and discovered Benedictine spirituality, which helped her (praying the Psalms). Ten years later she discovered Zen. She says that Benedictine spirituality and Zen Buddhism became “the 2 lungs through which I breathe.” Despite an original prognosis of 2-5 years, she has now lived for 20. Rolheiser wrote in his column: “They say that the book you need to read finds you at the time you most need to read it. That was the case here. Vandekerckhove is a young Belgian writer… [whose] …. normal life ended [20 years ago]…. After an initial descent into darkness, she found strength by making an inner journey into the deep silence that resides inside us all. Her description of her journey is remarkable.”

    As a friend of the ever elusive silence, and one who has worked with the grieving, dying and people with catastrophic illnesses for years, I was considering the book after reading Rolheiser’s recommendation and checking it out on Amazon, but I hadn’t ordered it. Now, after seeing it listed in your article, I believe I have just received the silent nudge (more like kick in the rear) that tells me (to quote Rolheiser) that the book I need has found me. Thank you. Now, please excuse me, I have to go, so I can order it. Blessed Lent….

  3. I am a great believer in silence as a most therapeutic ambience for soul-rest and healing. You have listed many suggestions for good books about silence.

    Note how few are by women.

    How many women have the luxury of silence?

    Do nuns publish as much as monks and priests? I wonder why not, if not.

    Women are in the noisier world of family, children, and, interestingly, the demands of men.

    I’ve ordered Sara Maitland’s book , having read some of her work years ago.

    • One of the issues I continually struggle with, in writing about Christian mysticism and contemplative living, is how underrepresented women are in the literature. Even today, it seems like for every one woman (Cynthia Bourgeault, Mary Margaret Funk) there are at least three men (Thomas Keating, Richard Rohr, Martin Laird, Michael Casey, William Meninger, Tilden Edwards…). I think you’ve hit on a very important issue, which is the relationship between silence and privilege. While in a real sense silence belongs to every one, access to external silence is very much embedded in privilege: which means that entire categories of people — women, the homeless, the imprisoned, refugees, and those who lack educational or financial resources — often have little or no access to such quiet, which not only affects their ability to develop a contemplative life, but also to write about such living. So I think you’ve touched on a really crucial matter that every lover of silence needs to think about, and consider how we can extend access to silence to everyone.

      • Hi Carl,
        Isn’t there a difference between silence and stillness? Perhaps it is that women have a greater need to find the still point within themselves, in the midst of the noises of life around them, and live from that place, than men do. Even in silence a heart or mind can be in noisy tumult. A silent world and a still heart are not necessarily the same. To me, stillness is the objective, since ultimately we are only able to live the life we have, moment to moment, in whatever environment we are in. Just a thought. 🙂 Best wishes.

        • Kaye, thanks for your thoughts. To be honest, I see silence and stillness as two sides of the same coin. What you are describing as “stillness” I wold describe as “inner silence.” We have very little external silence in today’s world, and often when people finally do access external silence (by retreating into nature, or visiting a monastery, or just getting up early and resisting the temptation to look at a screen), they immediately discover just how much inner noise is masking their inner silence! But I’m choosing my words carefully: our inner noise: our thoughts, anxieties, daydreams, compulsions, imaginations, etc. might mask silence, but such noise does not destroy it. The silence is always there! We are tasked with learning to “be still and know” the presence of the Holy, who is resting in our interior silence, beneath all the ordinary noisiness of our unruly minds.

          I really don’t think there is a gender difference at play here. Men and women may be culturally conditioned to have differing ways of approaching silence, valuing silence, or cherishing silence. But the need for silence (stillness) is as universal as our common need for oxygen or water.