While gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone, thy all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed.

(Wisdom 18, 14-16)

Looking out as far as the human eye can see into the expanse of ocean before me, I thought to myself that the term, Wild Atlantic Way, could be better renamed and promoted instead as Ireland’s Wild West! The rugged and untamed beauty of the Donegal coastline never fails to impress me. Buffeted by the gale force winds, I leaned further into them, feeling exhilarated by their power as they forced me back from the edge of the promontory that separated me from the waves below. The water exerted its power too, crashing against the black rocks beneath me, swirling around them, encircling them with its frothy serpentine grasp. For a brief moment, the sun broke through the cloudy grey sky, lighting up a corridor on the surface of the ocean like a door. Like Narnia, I felt beckoned to enter another world. From deep within me the words emerged: “See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut” (Rev.3:8).

Responding to the open-door invitation, I gingerly made my way down the side of the peak, almost crawling. I didn’t want to plunge into the swirling waters below, so I took great care not to lose my footing. Occasionally my foot would slide beneath the loose gravel, but I was also using my hands as an extra support at this stage. The winds continued to pluck at my jacket and whipped the spray from the waves in my direction. Eventually, I found shelter in the mouth of a small cavity at sea level that just about accommodated my body. Like Elijah in his cave, I found myself protected from the battling elements outside. Sitting on the ground, tired from the exertion, I was surprised to find that it significantly reduced the exterior noise. It was like another world. The roar of the ocean gave way to the gentle lapping of water that ebbed and flowed peacefully. It almost lulled me to sleep. Even this sound too began to diminish. Almost without notice, I found myself plunged into sheer silence. Complete stillness. The separation between me and the outside landscape evaporated. I felt at peace with nature. We merged. The outer silence reflected my interior landscape. The babbling brook of my thoughts ceased as did the swell of my emotions. Freed from the tyranny of thoughts and feelings, “the silence held with its gloved hand the wild hawk of the mind” (R.S. Thomas). Sheer silence. 

I often look back at that moment with a certain nostalgia. It’s impossible to communicate in words the experience of being immersed in silence, of being upheld, when everything is suspended. The wonderful release from the tyranny of thoughts and endless demands of feelings. Peace. Pure and simple. Reflecting on this experience, has made me more convinced than ever of the necessity of solitude and meditation in our lives. I don’t mean meditation in the sense of thinking about something, but more, a learning to be present. As St Teresa of Avila states, contemplation is not thinking much but rather loving much. Surely the essence of love then is to be present? This is true even of our relationship with God. Too often we think about God rather than being present to God. Too often the world of thoughts and feelings demands our attention so that descending deeper to this place of stillness is often barricaded with a large signpost declaring “off-limits!” And yet, this place exists within each one of us. When we manage to reach this interior dwelling place, we become aware of the presence of God who dwells within us in silence. We don’t have to do anything to make God become present, God is already there. It is we who are often absent. When we become truly present, God finds us.

“Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (1Kgs.18)

St Francis de Sales reminds us that “God is present everywhere but most especially in your heart.” Once we return to our heart, we discover, God is already there waiting for us. Furthermore, we may even be surprised to discover in the silence that God’s plans are quite different from ours!

By Eunan McDonnell SDB