“In quiet and silence the faithful soul makes progress…. Even as one learns to grow still, he draws closer to the Creator and farther from the distractions of the world.”—Thomas à Kempis, Imitation of Christ
The importance of interior silence is recommended by all the great saints and sages Yet it is a lesson that has to be continually relearned. It amounts to disciplining the mind. As the Imitation of Christ puts it: “First keep peace with yourself, then you can also bring peace to others.” This interior peace is not something we can impose on others. Nor is it really something we can “impose” on ourselves, in that it requires planning and patience and a certain amount of “recollection” throughout the day.
An excellent prelude to meditation is philosophical reading. However, for purposes of meditation (as opposed to research or writing) the best works are not discussions of intellectual or social complexities, or contentious theoretical debates. According to Thomas à Kempis: “There are many things, too, which it is well to pass by with a deaf ear, thinking, instead, of what is more to your peace.” Ethical and metaphysical studies like Etienne Gilson’s God and Philosophy or Jacques Maritain’s Approaches to God are very helpful. Among the ancients, there are the sayings of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. They are all short and easy to read in small installments.
The point is not to create a dialogue in one’s head so much as it is to encourage a passivity and receptivity to truth. “Only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear,” says Josef Pieper. Silence means turning off the gossipy chatter that we indulge in not only when when in the company of others, but even when alone, and which runs on like an endlessly looping soundtrack in our head. The things we do and read should to some degree take us out of ourselves, but neither should they be mere escapism.
Quietude is one of the most difficult intellectual exercises imaginable, at least I find it so. Nevertheless it is must be worthwhile since it has been sought after by men for as long as we have records of their thoughts.