To be silent

If you’ve read any sort of Pagan 101 book, you probably know about the Witches’ Pyramid. The phrase is usually in there somewhere after the elemental directions, sometimes with a helpful diagram of an actual pyramid, one face for each of the principles: to know, to will, to dare, and to keep silent. Silence is supposed to come last. It’s supposed to stand for keeping your own secrets, for maintaining the power of mystery, for knowing who and what you can’t trust.

I first read about the Pyramid as a teenager and then more or less forgot it. But a scrap of the formula has been threading through my mind more and more lately. To be silent. Silence, I’m realizing, doesn’t come at the end. Silence is the beginning of everything. Silence isn’t about keeping secrets. It creates the conditions for secrets to emerge.

Each week, I’ve been going back to the creek, to practice being silent. I find a spot to sit or stand and hold still until the place gets used to me. I don’t ever know who exactly will be around, but somebody always is. Maybe a bird (green heron, blue heron, jay, eagle), or someone furred and four-legged (muskrat, deer), or the ever-present fish (sunfish, common carp, bigmouth buffalo). Once, I met a serpent (northern water snake), who was even more silent than me, so silent I almost missed them coiled a few feet away.

Another Pagan principle I’ve often read is that the spirits of things will teach you who they are. I’ve seen this written by hard animists and polytheists, by mediums, by traditional cunning folk. It’s a common thread in many cultures beyond the Western worldview, the cultures we white Pagans so often treat like crib sheets for the numinous. As with most spiritual concepts, I’m both drawn to the idea and daunted by it, or even repelled – what does it mean, for spirits to speak? For spirits to be there at all, within the world of things?

To practice being silent is also to practice being in and of itself, to sink fully into the place where you are. When I am silent, I’m in a place before and beyond knowing, willing, daring. In that place, the doubts and desires and discomforts become irrelevant, subsumed. Around me is the world, stripped of mute things and full instead of living voices – of the two herons facing off across the creek, raising their wings and turning their pale chins to the sun, speaking to each other and to me of who they are. Their sharp beaks speak of the stabbing-quick, impartial plunge where life meets death. Their circling, weaving steps speak of autonomy negotiated within a shifting, collective web.

When I am silent, other spirits speak to me: the muskrat, with their swift-swimming tail and their nimble, plucking fingers and their indiscriminate teeth. At home in the backyard are the bees and butterflies (European honey bee, native solitary bee, monarch, skipper), their single-minded alertness harmonizing with the deceptively quiet spirits of the wild onions blooming against the fence. The onions speak to me of themselves, with their subtle scents of sweet and sharp, their fresh yellow pollen merging and moving with the bees, their green pods swelling as the petals fade and diminish, soon to burst with seeds.

When I am silent, I am open to information available to me simply by being a living thing. I become open to the information that all things are living. All things are made of life. Silence teaches me that all things speak, in ways I don’t have to read about, ways I can see and hear and smell and taste. And within the conversing silence, I can hear another spirit voice: my own, one of the many, a secret emerging.

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