Maria Young is the Headmistress of St Mary’s Shaftesbury. Here, she talks about the importance of silence in young people’s lives

When do young people have the opportunity to experience silence in their lives? Usually, it is either during the somewhat stressful quietness of a test, or in the reverential quiet of a visit to a museum, historic building, cemetery or similar. Unless we deliberately set out to achieve a sustained intentional silence at school, we run the very real risk of raising a generation that has never experienced the transformative power of stillness, against a backdrop of increasing levels of white noise.

It is striking how little conversation takes place on public transport today: a new silence has fallen there. Each individual is immersed in their own music or movie world, experiencing sounds chosen to underline or transform their own current mood, without needing to interact with anyone else nor take any account of the world around them. Levels of anxiety continue to rocket, however. Plugging in to one’s favourite music compilation is not really alleviating the pressures in the way one would hope.

Long before the admirable trend for mindfulness in an educational setting, Catholic schools were emphasising the need to experience silence as part of a full prayer life. Such periods of ‘silent reflection’ could lead directly into the transformational practice of meditative prayer, and the beginning of a lifetime’s spiritual journey. Our schools reach out to those of all faiths or none, however, and I have yet to meet a person who did not grow to value the experience of intentional silence, wherever they might sit on the faith spectrum. The practice offers a unique possibility to experience stillness, which has its own value, given the observations above.

When starting out, the very act of trying to empty one’s mind tends to achieve the reverse, as a host of unbidden thoughts and issues rush chattering in. The meditative journey teaches a person to acknowledge these thoughts and then let them go, so that a deep and powerful sense emerges of being able to control and get one’s anxieties into perspective. It is the very opposite of ‘overthinking’: learning to ‘accept’ and ‘let go’ is a blessing.

Fifteen-minute Silent Reflection sessions were part of the weekly evening routine when I ran a boarding house. The girls sat in the darkened Abbey church, the altar was spotlit and two candles were burning: as a mis en scène for deep interior work, the setting was hard to beat. Sometimes the initial ‘emotional chatter’ could turn up tricky thoughts, but the beautifully safe space and the power of undertaking silence as part of one’s community life meant that the girls really valued the experience, referring to it appreciatively long after leaving the school.

Discovering within oneself a profound sense of peace and love, whether or not one wished to identify that as an experience of the transcendent, gave an extra dimension to our pupils’ ability to be resilient and self-confident at an elemental level. If you wish this for your own child, then a Catholic education has much to commend it.