The Eloquence of Shadows
To make light is to make shadow; one cannot exist without the other. To own one’s own shadow is to reach a holy place—an inner center—not attainable in any other way. To fail this is to fail one’s own sainthood and to miss the purpose of life.
One companion we have at all times is our shadow. This is the place where we vigorously stuff all those things about ourselves that we don’t want to face. We so often try to live in the pretence that none of these characteristics are a part of us, and yet there, trailing behind us—and sometimes in front of us—is our shadow: the shifting shape that reminds us that we are not alone. It is embarrassing, shame-making, and something that we long wasn’t with us. We can never disown our shadow, so the discipline of choosing to face and accept parts of our shadow as they are revealed to us is wholesome and holy work. If we can move towards respecting and listening to our shadow, we can glean its wisdom for us. Indeed, as we do this, the Jungian analyst and author Robert Johnson points out, we can then embrace more fully and freely our sainthood, which has been there all along.
Arriving at the little wooden yurt hidden among the trees, hearing a few cows bellowing in the distance, and sensing the city’s demands a long way behind me, this calm place was welcoming me—the whole of me—into its light and shadow.
The smell of wood woke me. I gazed around at the many-sided yurt enfolding me with its warm pine-soaked presence. The beams above my head formed what looked like the spokes of a giant wheel holding the thatched roof above. I wondered what kind of ride the day was going to be.
Through the half-open window, I could see the sunlight shafting through the trees and feel the breeze on my face. It was just on sunrise, and the coolness reminded me it wasn’t quite summer yet. It was that in-between season, when the air is crisp, and the smell of the dew on the leaves seems to be drawn out by the slow warming of morning.
I lay still, listening to the silence.
I was sure I could hear tiny clicks of movement in the thatching above my head. Some little bugs maybe, waking up slowly and beginning their day of exploration and foraging. . . . I hoped I wouldn’t be part of their explorations. I am afraid of spiders, as well as snakes for that matter.
So what was I doing then, in the middle of the bush in a little timber hermitage on my own?
As I scrambled up and began to get dressed, I reminded myself that I had come on this retreat as part of my regular discipline of spending time in silence with God, without all the pressure and distractions of everyday demands. I had left my diary at home specifically so I could leave behind my diarized life, and enter into a spaciousness where I could encounter myself and God again.
Grabbing an apple, I wandered out into the unknown day. The ground was still damp from the night and I listened to my footfall sounding felted and soft as I padded down the track toward the river. I shivered. Maybe it was the air, maybe it was the sense that I wasn’t the only life-form in this bush. This land had been carefully farmed for years by the monks who dwelt here. I could see the chapel in the distance, on the edge of the property. On previous visits, when I had ventured into the chapel, the walls seemed to hold the deep history of prayers, like woven drapes hanging as warm tapestries of connection.
And this morning here in the fields, years of prayerful work seemed to have left the breath of God lingering in the air. I yearned to follow the scent of God.
The river was just a half-hour walk away, and once there the path would lead me through the tea tree forest, down the steep sandy track to the base of the gully, across the river, and up the sandstone escarpment. I could see my breath in the cold air. Breath. The stuff of life.
Clambering over the fence using a stile that reminded me of English walking tracks, I left the retreat acreage behind me and entered the national park. The bush became dense and dark, and the tea trees formed high-arching borders on either side of the path. I pulled absentmindedly at a sprig of tea tree leaves as I passed by and held them to my nose—such a strong smell of tea tree oil, lemon-tangy and fresh. It seemed to clear my head, and I became aware of the old familiar pain in my ankle. A constant companion of mine, and here it was again. It seemed to speak to me through the whispering rhythmic sound of uneven walking, foot . . . fall, foot . . . fall, foot . . . fall.
It was a series of falls in sport that had damaged my ankle when I was at university. I used to run everywhere, enjoyed long-distance running and as many sports events as possible. Two ankle reconstructions later, I am now beginning to feel the mortality of my own body, much to my disgust.
I used to see myself as an irrepressibly unstoppable person, active, lithe, and energetic. I understood that I was in control of my body and together we would go far. Yet who was I now, this limping person who could no longer run at all? Who was this aging person sniffing tea tree oil and walking alone through the bush?
I pondered the tea trees—so gnarled and scrappy, but forming beautiful arches over the path. I stopped, and my footfall companion halted its unwelcome tune. I stood in the silence, listening to the morning waking up. Sunlight shafted softly here and there into the leafy tunnel. I was drawn to one single, long, wave-shaped leaf at eye level, and I watched as, very slowly, the stream of sun moved millimeter by millimeter and began touching lightly just the tip of the leaf, then almost caressing in its gentle movement, stroking along its length to the leaf base. My breath had slowed, my heartbeat and even my watching slowed to the pace of the moving sunlight. Time itself felt slow. Then, there seemed the slightest tweak of the leaf tip, giving the tiniest crackle as if it was relaxing in response to the sun’s warmth. I felt myself relaxing as the same shaft of sun picked me out in minute motion to touch me on the arm. I quietly slid my hand out of my pocket as if any quick movement would frighten away this shy and delicate beam of light. I held my hand out to let the light fall into the center of my palm.
I was holding the sunlight.
I could see a soft shadow form across my palm as one of my fingers held back a sliver of the sun. My whole body was still, focused, expectant. Each leaf was attentive to the miniscule movements of airborne particles like notes dancing in staves of sun: numinous musical notations. Not even a flutter of breeze. Stillness. Silence and stillness. Yet so full of an exuberant richness.
The sun moved on from my hand, and I became aware of the aromatic smell of the tea trees surrounding me. The sun’s warmth was opening the pores of the leaves and the essence was like incense filling the tunnel’s sanctuary with its fragrant presence. It was as if the leaves were applauding a concert, responding to the symphonic sunlight with their own morning offering. I breathed it in deeply. Wasn’t tea tree oil used as a healing balm? I remembered my mother singing its praises for healing burns, treating infections and bites, and even for household cleaning. I breathed it in again. Is this one of the scents of God? Would it heal my own sense of lost self—the one that used to run and jump and leap through life? Could it be potent enough to help me negotiate a new self, one that was content to walk with a dignified limp? Not only content, but if silence and stillness can somehow be filled with exuberance and richness, could a slower self be filled with the grace and depth of an adagio? Leaping allegros have their place, but without the more reflective ease of the slow musical movements, it would be easy to skid across the top of life and miss plumbing the tonal maple depths of a cello playing Tomaso Albinoni’s Adagio, or the glowing resin of a walnutty piano piece by Rachmaninov.
The slow symphonic notes had gently lifted my spirit; a sense of God’s Spirit and my spirit concurring. Maybe there was some truth in the thought that aging has a future, that the leaping of youth is not all it is cracked up to be. The silence seemed to have become a presence, a healing Presence with a tea tree liturgy of peace. The disturbance within me was far from quiet, but this silence around me seemed to be tending to me like a drawing ointment on an open wound.
Praise for Conversations with Silence
“Sally Longley reminds us of a forgotten truth: Words of substance are born of silence and bear fruit in silence. At a time when public discourse is beset by destructive polarizations and sheer emptiness, both inside religious traditions and in the marketplaces of our cities, Conversations with Silence says, gently but powerfully, ‘There is another way.’ It is a wise and healing book.”
—Michael Whelan, SM, author of A Friendly Guide to Prayer
“In Conversations with Silence form and content kiss each other in a text that is both richly profound and beautifully written. Who knew silence was so tonal and eloquent!”
—Robin Parry, Church of England priest and author
“Here is the literary treasure-trove about silence that we all have been waiting for, the trialogue between the Divine, the human soul, and the Rosetta Stone realm of stillness. This is a ‘stepping stone to what is beyond explanation … sublime wisdom.’ … Céad mile fáilte to a practical, informative meditation that awakens the spirit of the mystic in every reader, expertly guided by the erudite, imaginative writing of spiritual director and retreat leader, Sally Longley.”
—Nóirín Ní Riain, spiritual singer, author, and Interfaith Minister
“In Psalm 46, the Holy calls upon us to ‘desist and know that I am God.’ In her Conversations with Silence, Sally Longley offers us heartfelt ‘whys’ ;and wise ‘hows,’ as she guides us to do just that, to be still and intimately know. Born of reflection, scholarship, and deep experience, Sally introduces us to but some of the divine faces she’s encountered amid the textures of silence—the Sacred manifest in our personal shadows and distractions, in the fire, in the sky, in Scripture and in the presence of Grandmother God. Rooted in her lived Christianity, Longley’s grasp of the Abrahamic faiths, of Eastern and Indigenous traditions makes this a compelling read for people of all backgrounds.”
—Howard Avruhm Addison, Director, Jewish Spirituality Doctoral Programs, Graduate Theological Foundation
“Part memoir and part spiritual instruction guide, Conversations with Silence is a poetically powerful invitation to transform our lives and authenticate our relationship with God through the healing power of silence. Spiritual director and author Sally Longley understands firsthand what courage it takes it takes to stop living frantically, to listen deeply, and to surrender to the voice of God wherever one finds it—in the Australian bush, in the desert, or in one’s own backyard. She invites us to courageously do the same; to seize sacred opportunities and pauses, Selah, which can be found always and everywhere, … This book is a propitious gift to the world, and one that is sorely needed during these times of cacophonous disconnection and despair. It is a hopeful book, and I am supremely grateful for it.”
—Janice L. Lundy, co-founder, The Spiritual Guidance Training Institute, Chicago
About the Author