Space for sheer silence - Madonna Magazine

Space for sheer silence

Julian Butler SJ 16 August 2022

Floating, the odd paddle keeping me upright, suspended in salt water. Diving under water, engulfed and somehow freed. Coming up for air, sun on my face. At other times just the drab grey of clouds; or the dulling light following sunset.

From this favourite spot in Port Phillip Bay, looking east, I can see the city on a good day. I can swish myself round to look back to shore and up to Arthurs Seat. Mostly green and somehow reassuring, even with the impressive houses dotted about. Even though I’ve seen fire roll down that hill.

Between the high hill and the sand is the highway, companion to so many Australian beach. But from the water it is obscured by trees. Those same trees give shelter to the space where the foreshore campers set up during long summers.


Looking north and south I can see the way the shore meets the bay in different ways. All of it provides a familiar scene within which I can let go. Occasionally a new detail: last summer the lighthouse covered in scaffolding. But in general, there is a familiarity that allows me to feel something like peace. That allows my thoughts to unravel and dissolve.

For the longest time I did not think of these as spiritual moments. Until I named them that way. And then, of course, they were. Clearly, they were. They were moments of quiet, peaceful gratitude at all that was. Even the sticky situations that sometimes awaited return from the water. When the only thing to be grateful for was the momentary suspension.

I had a moment when I was 17 years old. Travelling with another school student with the Jesuits in India, we spent the night in a village far from roads and things familiar to me. I woke early. Early for me, anyway. I emerged from the mud hut in which we had stayed to find our hosts cooking some breakfast, and their lunch to be taken off for the day. Another family were nearby, warming themselves around a fire. Giggling and sharing stories. And then jokes, I imagine, about the foreigner who came and stood with them but could not speak with them.


Not wanting to outstay my welcome, and compelled somehow, I climbed a nearby hill that arose out of and over the village. A little way up I caught sight of the sun. It emerged magnificent, gently warming my face. I turned and watched as it lite the little valley below. Shone more light on the shrub and dust, the mud huts and those surrounding fires. I was overwhelmed by God’s presence in that moment. In a way that I had never been before, and rarely have been since. It does not do to write too much about it, because it was, is, beyond words. A God moment.

I have often understood my sense of God to have been most clearly developed in my relationships with others. With those who have shown me love and compassion. Those who have modelled God as I experience and hope God to be. Many school students I now work with often answer most confidently that they find God, whatever that word signifies to them, in nature. Their insight is making me more appreciative.

The experience of the prophet Elijah is suggestive. At once an experience at once in creation, and in a creative moment that reveals the Creator. Sent to go and stand on the mountain the Lord will pass, Elijah witnesses a great wind, earthquake and fire but God is not in these. God is in ‘a sound of sheer silence’ (1 Kings 19:13). A moment just enough for God to enter. Elijah hears the question, ‘What are you doing here?’  In coming to recognise the mystery of creation, the Creator who sustains it, we come to glimpse the mystery of ourselves.


We encounter and connect with and through our bodies. Our ways of knowing are inherently linked to our bodies, and so to how we are in space. We comprehend something of ourselves in relation to other people. We also comprehend something of ourselves in how we sit in creation, in the space that gives us context, of which we are a part.

There is a beauty in nature that lies beyond the cities in which so many of us live. Outside of human structures, to the structures that feel as if they approach timelessness. Or at least the vastness of God’s created time. To drive past a mountain range and ponder God’s presence as the slow formation of earth has occurred.

Those of us who live in cities might attend just as much to the spaces we are in, even as they give us a different context. Even as we might feel hemmed in and encroached on. We can attend with awe to the beauty of being in the space beyond, as Elijah. But in the clamour of garbage trucks, the swish of passing cars, the chatter of the TV from next door, we can attend to God’s presence in the space around us, as much as in ourselves. We might be graced to hear the sound of sheer silence.