I am deaf, and a good many people (some of whom should know better) seem to think that that gives me a kind of “leg up” on silence. ‘Tain’t necessarily so…. simply because my ears don’t work so well does not mean that my mind and heart are therefore silent. In fact, since I have a very inquisitive mind, and read a lot, and therefore have lots of phrases and concepts floating around in my mind, I often think that I may have more in the way of distracting thoughts and ideas than many hearing folks. It took me a LONG time (years and years, actually) to learn to silence my inner being and make room for God to speak. (And, yes, I DO hear God speak in that silence.)
I agree with what Fr. David said about silence extending to relationships and, I would say, even to things…possessions, sensory impressions (a nice rich hot cup of cocoa can really call to you at times, as can the almost irresistible desire to turn away from struggling with distractions and get back to that interesting book or movie on CD or knitting project…they all have their own individual voices, many very hard to resist) or just the kind of innate feeling that “I shouldn’t be wasting time, there’s work to be done, I better get on with it” self-talk. And then there are the zillions of stream-of-consciousness distractions, each of which leads to another in an impenetrable hedge that can eventually wall you off from silence, no matter how still you try to be. I have found, sometimes, that those stream-of-consciousness distractions can actually be turned into prayer, and eventually lead back to silence, if one is patient and works with, rather than against, the mind. But they are very tempting, and can lead off in all (very un-prayerful) directions if allowed to take over.
Thomas Merton taught me, via one of his books, one way into true, deep silence, the silence within which one can sometimes hear God talking. When he was a postulant and novice, he struggled with silence. His writer’s and scholar’s mind kept leading him into tangles of distraction. He would go into the novitiate chapel and simply kneel there, focusing on the tabernacle, allowing nothing to disturb that focus…not praying, not thinking, not attending to anything else at all. The Silence of the tabernacle and its Occupant would gradually steal over him and enfold him and penetrate his mind and establish itself there. I have found this works for me, too. You don’t actually need to be in front of a tabernacle…you can visualize the tabernacle of your favorite church, or a crucifix that you see in your mind’s eye, or even a gently flowing stream in a meadow, or some favorite scene from the Bible, and concentrate on that. Ever since I went to Egypt and Israel some years ago, the Garden Tomb works for me in this way, too. Or you can use the method from The Cloud of Unknowing, but that takes more practice and is harder to learn. Centering prayer is another route to the silence within…so is the Jesus Prayer.
One of the things I have learned, gradually, is that once I find silence in my morning prayer and meditation, I can carry it with me through the day, and return to it at will, for short times of prayer every now and then when circumstances permit. Someone said (I cannot recall who) that “Speech is a journey that one makes out of charity for the needs of others, but silence is the homeland.” I have found that, also, to be true.