During the Holy Week a group of some 30 youths along with some priests (to 'lead' the retreat) went up to a monastery to spend a few days dedicated to quiet reflection, discussion, meditation and prayer. 

Most of the youths were first-year university students some were advanced level students who have special interest in religious education.  Around 15 university students were majoring in music, mathematics combined with theology.  Many of them were seriously considering a religious vocation.

So we all found ourselves - some 6 priests and 30 youths in this remote monastery majoring in silence.

The fascinating thing was this.  These bright eyed, bushy tailed youngsters along with these "sell by date" lapsed priests - we all were thrown in together! we all had interesting things to say.  We all could have talked our way through the whole retreat. But the discipline was to gather our thoughts; hold them in meditation; weigh it; pray about it; engage in deep private thought; articulate it in personal prayer, hymn, chant or in perfect silence. 

The reason for this practice is to value the beauty of silence. To listen to the eloquence of silence.  For most city dwellers; which we were - silence was a mere far cry! 

 There is no need to fear silence.  Often we fear silence because we don't know how to "fill the void".  We fail to know "what to say" when we are confronted with silence!

Silence is both our teacher and friend. That's the big lesson.

Have you ever sat with some youngsters for a meal in absolute silence? You smile; you make courteous gestures; that's all.  Some how you manage to convey and communicate through silence.  You can "hear" each others breathing in such silence. It gives us the sense of being alive in the presence of "one and other." One can hear the forks and knives and even some one munching bread; some one pouring water into the glass and the sound of the decanter. You can hear the birds singing. You can even hear the wind rustling through the daffodils!  

Most times we take these things for granted.  We fail to appreciate.  We hardly listen. That's the key - "Listen".  When we fail to listen, we mishear.  We misinterpret; misunderstand - that's the lesson.

Don't you think the world will be a better place if we can only pause to hear and listen.  Many times we might listen without hearing and hear without listening.  This can cause conflict can't it?

Our silence was broken when we gathered around the fire for "Any Questions".  Youngsters were encouraged to ask questions.  Of course, these young enquiring minds had plenty of questions...any questions spiritual, politics, current affairs - in essence enquiries pertaining to how we view our world - global village if you insist! And how we view ourselves in it.

Among other questions, one young girl of Asian persuasions had an interesting question for me. I was slightly taken aback with this question - I must silently confess. 

What is your view on the Tigers she asked.  An elderly priest said: Is this a question on extinction?  She said: No, No...this is about the real Tigers; the Tamils in South India.

I said: The question is about the slow extinction of the Ceylon Tamils.  "O, Ceylon; Sri Lanka; most peculiar question..." wondered my elder colleague.  "I have served in Trincomalee as a young officer in1930 something" he said.  "This is difficult question", my colleague said to snuff the enthusiasm of the young person.  She firmly replied, the previous question was on Hamas and the Palestinians.  We live in such a world, and we therefore need to understand it, she reminded all the "old boys"..

What about the Tigers? I asked this young university student.  I said I am a Tamil.  And the Tigers are Tamils.  We are struggling for our political and human rights.  We want our sovereignty back and we call our homeland Tamil Eelam.

Do You think Tamil Eelam will include all the people of Sri Lanka? This question came from my elder colleague. 

I should think so, I said to him.  Of course the Tamils are not planning to literally build a wall of separation as they have done in Israel.  What we are asking for is to give us the liberty to choose and to determine our political destiny.  We are not planning to plant an apartheid state in the global village - at least that's what I think I said. 

The interesting thing I noted was how silence can envelope us in deep thought and reflection and a brief moment of speech can engage us to discuss such a volatile situation.

Prior to silence there was peace.  And then there was silence during the activity of meditation and thought. Silence was broken in order to engage in speech -- for useful discussion, intellectual and spiritual exercise,  for enquiry and deliberation. But there was a stark difference.  The preparation of heart, mind and body in silence has attuned your whole being to listen and hear.  And then there was speech.

I came back after the retreat thinking whether there has there been a proper preparation for these so-called peace talks between Sri Lanka and Tamil Eelam.  Don't you think it is wrong that only when the heat is up, only when each  is at the other's throat we run to talk, to negotiate - without any preparation; without any thought - perhaps only duplicitous thoughts...accusations; counter accusations; press releases opposing media speeches; tit for tat? Everything ends in violence - violating fundamental human dignity and right. 

When either side refuses to listen and hear then what is left is a dialogue of the deaf. I hold a dim view of  such talks. It persistently misses the fundamental point, the sole reason for coming together. We must remind ourselves that peace is NOT the absence of conflict.  Silence is not just the absence of speech. If war is politics by other means...should "peace" be read as war by other means?