We live in a culture that’s scared shitless of it. Bike to the end of a beach road in slanting late-afternoon light. Dismount. Listen to the cry of an osprey overhead. Look ahead of you to the bay and the man on one lone paddle-board fifty yards out on the water. Wait till he comes in toward shore. He’s paddling one-handed, because he’s on a cell phone. (I wish I were making this up.)

On the radio, they call it “dead air.” Dead, because we’re dead to the life in it.

It’s not the opposite of human speech. It’s the luminous ground that gives all speech its meaning.

We lapse into it because words fail us when we greet the Mystery of our lives.

Christian monks keep the Great Silence, renouncing speech between the last prayers of evening and the first service of the following morning, the better to hear the unsaid and unsayable.

When the altars are stripped at the end of the Maundy Thursday service in commemoration of the arrest of Jesus, all flee in silence. (Except when people buttonhole each other as they leave to make plans for Easter brunch.) It’s observed during the reading of Christ’s Passion on Good Friday, at the point when the text says, “And Jesus breathed his last.” The silence should be kept long enough to be uncomfortable. It rarely is.

Native American councils use a Talking Stick as an emblem that the one person holding it has authority to speak. It’s the responsibility of others to keep a receptive silence and to listen actively. Radical faeries and others have taken up the practice.

Quakers sit together in silence and wait for the Light, knowing it’s the Womb of the Spirit.

It’s the essential precondition of sitting meditation.

If you’ve eaten a meal in complete silence in the presence of others at a retreat, maybe you've had the experience of how utterly full the wordlessness can be.

It shapes the language we use in ritual because we need to know when to shut up and let actions speak about things that words can’t capture. When we concoct language for ritual that goes on at great length to express exactly what we want it to, we’ve already blown it. Good ritual language has silence built into it: it leaves plenty of space for what isn’t said–and for us to listen as well as to talk.