There is something odd about commenting on silence, but it is also something that is needed at times. Understandably not much has been written on this subject. Yes, there is the traditional monastic literature which contains various commendations and urgings of the reality of silence, but there is very little there to illumine the deeper meaning and role of silence in our spiritual journey. If you are in a formal monastic setting in a contemplative community, you will find silence is almost natural, a good that is taken for granted, but again its deeper significance not much understood. Among modern writings there is the old classic by Max Picard, The World of Silence. It opens the door to a much deeper reflection on silence, but in some aspects it is a bit dated in its references to modern life. There are, of course, the beautiful writings of Thomas Merton in which he often points us in a direction of a more profound appreciation of silence, but all in all he does not give silence the intense scrutiny that he gives to solitude. There are also various other modern authors who have written with some appreciation of silence in the spiritual life. Let us throw out some scattered thoughts about silence in order to encourage a deeper reflection on this reality.
What is silence? An absence of noise? Yes, but even “noise” that is meaningful, like speech and words is often held as not being silence. Sometimes, in contemplative literature, even thoughts in one’s own mind that are not articulated are considered as somehow not real silence. But what if silence is not a negative thing, an absence of something….. What if silence is rather a Presence of something…..
Consider the following Taoist poem from Lao Tzu:
Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.
Communion comes from communication AND silence. Communication is the Taoist’s “profit”—silence is what makes it all “useful.” Needless to say these words are not being used in the usual way.
Silence is the foundation of all communication. Without it communication is just gibberish and propaganda and noise. We have an awful lot of that today. Technology makes silence a lot harder to find and appreciate and understand. Yet we are starving for the reality that silence brings.
Silence does not begin with the end of speech; silence does not end with the first word. Silence is always THERE, wherever “there” is. We only need to turn towards it and “tap” into it. But that might not be so easy. From the Desert Fathers: “It was said of Abba Agatho that for 3 years he carried a stone in his mouth until he learned to be silent.”
There is a silence which we find when we turn off all our gadgets and stop talking. Then there is a silence within that silence or rather beyond that silence. It is this toward which we need to turn and in which we need to live if we want a deeper life.
In the Gospels, in the Passion account, Jesus is portrayed as mostly silent. He speaks only a handful of words throughout the whole ordeal. “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me, ” is one such utterance. Nobody really wants to discover THAT silence—the Silence of No-God, or the silence of the place where God is NOT. But Jesus is the Word of God, and so he enters into that silence in a way we cannot comprehend, and so there is no longer any such place that is without God, and it is this which we celebrate at the Easter Vigil.
The Gospel of John begins: In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God…. “Logos” is usually translated as “word”–quite correctly but inevitably drained of so much meaning. For the ancient Greeks “logos” had a very rich sense: word, discourse, story, account, meaning, language, explanation, logic, reason, rationality, etc. In the modern West, this “logos” got bifurcated and lost its content of “reason” and “rationality” which got isolated within the sciences and mathematics and logic So an explanation for something was either “scientific” or else for all practical purposes a “story.” Well, never mind that problem, but for our purposes here we should note that Jesus is thus much more than the “word” of God in our narrow sense. He is the discourse of God, the meaning of God, the language of God, etc. And furthermore what is most astonishing from the perspective of world spiritualities, there is discourse within God—this is where we get the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, and it is here where many people get lost simply because they do not appreciate the Mystery they are dealing with and oversimplify it and drag it down to something they can understand and/or imagine. Suffice it to say that from the standpoint of Christian faith the Ultimate Reality is not one of Absolute Silence but rather one that is an unimagineable communion of eternal, infinte and absolute love in which both word and silence participate in.
In the Hebrew Bible there are a couple of classic places where the reality of silence is pointed to in a significant way. One place has to do with the prophet Elijah (1Kings 19 11-13). Elijah is “invited” to an encounter with the Mystery of God and not just his own imagination of God. Note the text
“Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in theearthquake; and after the earthquake, a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.”
The implication is that Elijah(and we) expect God’s Presence (Power) to be manifest in such and such a way–pick whatever you want, and the Bible itself suggests a whole host of them–but this text then undermines all of them with that most remarkable phrase, “a sound of sheer silence.” (In some translations, this is called a “whisper,” but that is not a good translation for the meaning there.) This is a silence much, much more than just a lack of noise or speech.
Another classic text can be found in Psalm 46. Note the text:
“He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear,
he burns the chariots with fire!
‘Be still, and know that I am God.
I am exalted among the nations.
I am exalted in the earth’
The Lord of hosts is with us.
The God of Jacob is our refuge.”
That central line, “Be still……..” , is often quoted in spiritual, monastic literature–but out of context. Note that this “stillness” is also not merely just another quiet period, an end of noise or speech. It has to do with an end to war, an end to institutionalized violence—the bow, the spear, the chariot are signs of the military-industrial complex of that day. But of course just as our Desert Fathers knew quite well, this violence needs to be tracked down to our innermost heart and our innermost thoughts and rooted out from there. Why? Because note that knowledge of God depends on that. Again, that call to “stillness” is not in the abstract–it is somehow connected with the knowledge of God. That little word “and” is very rich and very important. It may mean that knowledge of God follows upon that “stillness.” It may mean that knowledge of God is “caused” through that “stillness.” Or it may mean that that “stillness” IS what the knowledge of God is. Indeed there are probably even more implications in that one little line. But whatever be the case, we are invited to a knowledge of God through a silence that begins (and ONLY begins) when we turn off the “noise” of our self-centered existence.