Spiritual Directors International

The Home of Spiritual Companionship

The Countercultural Gift of Silence

Guest Author: 
Liz Budd Ellmann, MDiv

I asked Marcus to place signs on all the SDI pilgrimage tables in the restaurant: Ruhe. In German, ruhe means silence. SDI pilgrims would be eating meals in silence on Sunday, a day of silence during the Interfaith Pilgrimage to Germany: In the Footsteps of Hildegard of Bingen.

As the manager of the wellness hotel in Germany where the SDI Saint Hildegard pilgrims stayed, Marcus had already experienced many days of talkative pilgrims laughing heartily during meals. Pilgrims enthusiastically sharing their experiences of visiting sites where Hildegard offered spiritual direction, as well as telling stories about what life must have been like for the thriving Jewish community in Worms in the twelfth century, at the time of Hildegard. In response to my request for tables to be marked ruhe, it’s no wonder Marcus gave me a disbelieving smile that indicated he did not think we could actually hold silence.

Sunday breakfast arrived. The hotel was fully booked. Almost eighty hotel guests shared the dining room. With apparent ease, thirty-three SDI pilgrims entered the contemplative practice of eating in silence. With almost half of the dining room quiet, the restaurant was transformed.

Then something quite special happened. During the midday meal, a German hotel guest asked if she could join our table and practice silence with us. Of course! Then another hotel guest mused what it would be like if one day a week all our families would practice silence. “We could simply look out the windows at the natural beauty and appreciate each other in silence,” he said as we listened, nodding in silence. 

At one point Marcus came to my table and asked out loud, "When will you all talk again? This is a little bit too calm for me!"

As spiritual directors, we know and trust the process of practicing stillness. Slowly we notice that everything belongs, even the random, unwelcome, and chaotic thoughts that may include discovering that silence is “a little bit too calm for me.”

Being silent in community is a countercultural act of kindness and peacemaking. It’s a gift that many people today do not understand. It’s an ancient monastic gift that Saint Hildegard of Bingen and many mystics like her offer us today to aid in transforming our hearts and our world toward peace and justice.he "secular" German guests joined our table of silence. Another German guest asked me, "Can you imagine if for one day each week we were in silence in our homes, families, communities?" Genau!

In October, SDI will practice silence with the Shalem Institute as a way of celebrating their forty years of enriching and forming spiritual guides. Please join me in a prayer of gratitude for Shalem’s ministry by entering silence from October 13­­–15. Know that you will be offering a gift of contemplative silence that transforms our world.


Do you have a favorite story about giving the countercultural gift of silence in community? What tips do you share with your spiritual companions who struggle with settling down into stillness?

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