Women Choosing Silence
Relationality and Transformation in Spiritual Practice
Silence is long-established as a spiritual discipline amongst people of faith. However, its examination tends to focus on depictions within texts emerging from religious life and the development of its practices. Latterly, feminist theologians have also highlighted the silencing of women within Christian history. Consequently, silence is often portrayed as a solitary discipline based in norms of male monastic experience or a tool of women’s subjugation. In contrast, this book investigates chosen practices of silence in the lives of Christian women today, evidencing its potential for enabling profound relationality and empowerment within their spiritual journeys.
Opening with an exploration of Christianity’s reclamation of practices of silence in the twentieth century, this contemporary ethnographic study engages with wider academic conversations about silence. Its substantive theological and empirical exploration of women’s practices of silence demonstrates that, for some, silence-based prayer is a valued space for encounter and transformation in relationships with God, with themselves and with others. Utilising a methodology that proposes focusing on silence throughout the qualitative research process, this study also illustrates a new model for depicting relational change. Finally, the book urges practical and feminist theologians to re-examine silence’s potential for facilitating the development of more authentic and responsible relationality within people’s lives.
This is a unique study that provides new perspectives on practices of silence within Christianity, particularly amongst women. It will, therefore, be of significant interest to academics, practitioners and students in theology and religious studies with a focus on contemporary religion, spirituality, feminism, gender and research methods.
Table of Contents
1 Beginnings in Silence 2 Silent Threads: Explorations of Silence from Interdisciplinary Perspectives 3 Learning to Hear: Developing Methods for Listening to Women’s Experiences of Silence 4 Mapping Silence 5 Silence and Relationality with God 6 Silence and Relationality with Self 7 Silence and Relationality with Others 8 Silence in Transformation
Alison Woolley completed her PhD at The Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education through The University of Birmingham, UK. She 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.
"Based upon research which engages with women’s mutlifacetted spiritual experiences of silence this illuminating book respectfully challenges feminist readers to rethink their ‘noisy’ approaches to theological practice. We are enabled to recognize silence as a place full of intimate presences generating deep, relational wisdom. We also encounter silence as profound absence, self-loss and separation from the divine. This is a challenging place in which another kind of loving knowledge is born that has the potential to be both spiritually renewing and socially transforming." – Heather Walton, University of Glasgow, UK.
"Alison Woolley's book makes an important contribution, not only to existing research on the faith lives of women and girls, but also to wider debate within feminist and practical theology, the broader world of Christian spirituality, and within wider religious traditions. Fascinating and compelling, her detailed analysis of women's chosen practices of silence challenges feminist theology's neglect of silence as a positive source of women's liberation and agency. The depth and care of her data analysis and the richness of the material on which it is based add significantly to previous studies of silence." – Nicola Slee, The Queen's Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education, UK
"In this beautifully crafted work, Alison Woolley offers a feminist appraisal of the spiritual significance of silence, and considers how and why women choose practices of silence to resource their relationship to God, self, others, and their personal transformation. Not only is this a sensitive portrayal, but Woolley opens up new and creative ways to hear women's faith stories, and in doing so reveals the generative power of silence for her participants and for researchers." - Dawn Llewellyn, University of Chester, UK.
"Ground-breaking, thought-provoking, and not just for women but for anyone who wants to understand more about encountering God in silence! Alison Woolley thoughtfully and carefully gives voice to the silence surrounding women's spiritual practices of silence. Setting her research within the history and understanding of attitudes towards silence, with rigorous methodology and with personal honesty, she allows women to reflect on their experiences of silence-based prayer, relating these to wider questions about the nature of silence itself and to different distinctions between meditation and contemplation. The voices of the women are powerful, addressing not only their experience of God but how silence transforms their self-understanding and their engagement with others. Woolley's conclusion is a creative challenge on the need to incorporate apophatic contemplation and divine union into feminist discourse.' - David Ison, Dean of St Paul's Cathedral, London, UK
"In this book Alison Woolley gifts us with an in-depth account of her doctoral research into how 20 women experience silence that is chosen by them as a spiritual practice. It is an inspiring read, calling for engagement that is worthy of her care-full exploration of holy ground. We have here a richly woven tapestry of words about silence with words out of silence. [...] This study provides incentive for further exploration of silence as a spiritual practice in diverse personal circumstances and socio-cultural settings; and the work provides a valuable resource for inter-religious dialogue on the experience of creative and healing silence between diverse faith traditions - thus drawing the human community to ever greater wholeness." - Ann Codd, Practical Theology
"A powerful, comprehensive investigation of silence, that draws you in and which acts to prompt further thought about the nature of spiritual practice, as well as the importance of carving out a space for silence in an increasingly noisy world. This is an important book for all seeking a deeper form of spiritual practice, as well as for those interested in the way in which women shape their spiritual practice." - Beverley Clack, Feminist Theology
"Women Choosing Silence 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 […] This book is highly rigorous throughout, with a very careful literature review and generally excellent and thoughtful handling of the interview data." - Rhiannon Grant, Reading Religion