By
Séverine Chavanne
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21 February, 2013

The Power of Silence

Graham Turner talking about his book 'The Power of Silence'
Graham Turner talking about his book 'The Power of Silence'

‘The reputation of silence – at least in the western world – has now fallen so low that somebody has to speak up for it.’ This is how Graham Turner started his introduction of his new book, The Power of Silence, at a launch in the London centre of Initiatives of Change on 5 February.

The Rt Rev Richard Chartres, Bishop of London
The Rt Rev Richard Chartres, Bishop of London
The Rt Rev Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, who was chairing the evening, presented the author: ‘Graham Turner is one of those English living treasures – ought to be listed really! – because at a time when the press has not always had a marvellous reputation, Graham has pursued a really distinguished career as a writer and a columnist in all sorts of leading titles. He’s been successful in his career but as we all know has at no point lost his virtue.’

So what made him write a book on silence? Turner said that in his mid-twenties he was prodded into a 15 minutes experience of silence, which changed the course of his life. ‘Recalling that experience, I decided it could be interesting to talk to people around the world who value silence, to find out what they saw in it,’ he said. His publisher asked him to write a book for people who ‘prowl on the frontiers of religion’; and that was what he had tried to do.

Launch of The Power of Silence audience in Greencoat Place
Launch of The Power of Silence audience in Greencoat Place
Having observed how silence, in the west at least, has come to be regarded as the very opposite of peace of mind, Turner asked: ‘Is that because [we] can see no point in it? Or because [we] find it empty and boring? Or even threatening? Perhaps because there really is no protection in silence. In silence you have no defence against the fears and anxieties that so many of us are prey to.’

And there were clear symptoms of that approach to silence. Turner went on: ‘Think of the adjectives that we typically use to describe silence: an uncomfortable silence, an awkward silence, an embarrassing silence, an oppressive silence, an ominous silence, a silence you could cut with a knife, a deathly silence. I don’t often hear people talk about a delightful silence or an inspiring silence.’

What a contrast, he said, with the approach he found in India, a country ‘that has a deeper, sometimes hidden, reverence for the spiritual value of silence as a road to insight and wisdom.’

‘The Power of Silence’ by Graham Turner
‘The Power of Silence’ by Graham Turner
He also explored the value of silence for musicians, some of whom, to his great surprise, immediately volunteered to talk to him about it. Turner discovered that for them silence was the canvas on which every performance was painted. ‘It helps people to come deeper into the meaning of a piece of music. The pauses are where the art lay.’

Silence in theatre, silence for hermits in the Egyptian desert, silence for a jailed murderer in Scotland, silence for the Quakers in Oxford, silence for a Sufi in Delhi, silence for Zen Buddhists in their efforts to deal with the human ego, silence for Theravada Buddhists, silence for Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi in the UK.

And finally he touched the matter of silence ‘for Christians who still value silence and turn to it for communion with God, for some kind of communication or inspiration from Him.’ Something they described to him as ‘thoughts, which don’t seem to come from their own normal mental processes, which arrive in their minds with a clarity and authority which has a spoken quality about it (…) A whisper, a murmur, a hint, which did have a different quality about it and which, they felt, required to be obeyed.’

Graham Turner
Graham Turner
Sharing his own first experience of silence, Turner said: ‘I sensed that there was something out there that knew me far better than I knew myself… How you explain that, I don’t know… Perhaps because I’d been raised as a Christian, I put it down to a God in whom I never believed.’

He added: ‘It seems to me the common experience of those who have thoughts like that and actually obey them that there always seems to be a response of enormous love from wherever these thoughts came from in the first place.’

As a conclusion, Turner said: ‘It’s not a proselytising book but I hope it’s a persuasive one.’

Report and photos by Severine Chavanne

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