Women Choosing Silence

Relationality and Transformation in Spiritual Practice

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Alison Woolley
Explorations in Practical, Pastoral and Empirical Theology
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , February
     2019.
     284 pages.
     $140.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781138574601.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Women Choosing Silence: Relationality and Transformation in Spiritual Practice is an impressively detailed and nuanced exploration of an area which, as author Alison Woolley,  comprehensively demonstrates, has previously been under-researched. The book brings together theoretical perspectives from theology—especially feminist and practical theology— and psychology, bringing them into dialogue with the findings from a detailed qualitative study. Woolley's main aim is to ask what role silence plays in the lives of lay women who choose to actively use silence as a spiritual practice, and to use this information to look back at the ways silence has been discussed in (mainly feminist) theological literature in the past. Her key findings are that silence—often regarded as a negative force, used to silence women and prevent their perspectives being heard—is, on the contrary, often experienced as a positive force by women who choose it. In extensive interviews, they report using silence as a tool in which to gain self-knowledge and confidence in their own voices.

This book is highly rigorous throughout, with a very careful literature review and generally excellent and thoughtful handling of the interview data. If I were to ask for one extra thing, it would be for a clearer introduction to each of the twenty research participants.  Twenty names is slightly too many to quickly memorise, and a table or list which could be used as a handy reference when quotations appear later in the text (to remind the reader, for example, of the age and denominational affiliation of each participant) would be useful. If I could have two things, accepting that this would require a significantly larger study, I would also want to hear from women who experimented with practices of silence and did not continue. Of the twenty interviewees, it becomes clear that many had temporarily stopped their practice, only to decide to return: “When the negative effects of withdrawal outweigh the challenges of confronting truth, they choose to re-engage with silence” (183). What happens to women in similar situations who, for whatever reason, do not choose to re-engage? Perhaps a future study will explore such issues, along with questions such as how these experiences compare with men’s use of silence; whether race, class, sexuality, disability, or other factors are significant; and how these individuals’ practices might be better supported by faith communities.

Women Choosing Silence contributes to three bodies of literature. It is an important addition to previous feminist theological work on silence, as its extensive engagement with Nelle Morton, Rachel Muers, and others demonstrates. It has much to say to people engaged in offering spiritual support; although not directly giving advice to spiritual directors or others in pastoral roles, anyone working in such roles in communities where some individuals might be using silence extensively (either individually or communally) is likely to find much of interest here. The interviewing process revealed a number of common failings in such support, and also suggested ways in which it might be improved. Finally, the book contributes to denominational studies, especially Quaker Studies, where there are already some examinations of the communal use of silence. Although it treats Pink Dandelion's sociologically based analyses as theological comment—a mistake to whatever extent one thinks that a church's theory of worship and its human failure to live up to that theory can be separated—and does not have space to engage with Quaker writing more broadly (except the work of Rachel Muers, already considered as a feminist theologian), it is likely to be of use to future scholars working on the relationships between private and public or individual and communal uses of liturgical silence.

Perhaps the richest material in this book is Woolley’s consideration of metaphors which the interviewees used in their descriptions of silence. Mainly in the second half of the book and especially in chapter 6, “Silence and relationality with self,” Woolley explores the range of metaphors employed by women striving to describe their experiences of silence. This both contributes to her broader project, demonstrating that despite the practical and theoretical difficulties of talking about silence it is nevertheless both possible and fruitful to make the attempt, and shows how these women find positive experiences in silence. Metaphors used include “being held by water and being held in ways that imply increased stability” (170), silence as “a place of resourcing” and “being re-energised” (171), “nourishing … rich and sweet, like honey, fruit or nectar” (174) and “a play space” (188). These images, rooted in real experience, might be used to inform teaching about the potential uses of silence, both in theoretical contexts (a class discussion, for example, could explore the significance of the potentially gendered “nourishment” and “play” metaphors within the context of a feminist study) and in faith communities (for example, some of these images could be actualised to produce exercises to help people engage with silence).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rhiannon Grant is a tutor at the Centre for Research in Quaker Studies/University of Birmingham.

Date of Review: 
October 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alison Woolley combines her role as Director of Seeds of Silence, offering training, workshops and advice in both developing and supporting people’s spiritual discipline of silence with her work as a spiritual accompanist and music therapist.

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