I mentioned that the morning is normally spent in silent reflection over breakfast, which falls between Vigils and Lauds. As I was sitting outside waiting for Lauds, I thought about silence. It seems there are different kinds of silence: recalcitrant silence, unspeakable silence, and present silence. There are other kinds of silence, but these are the ones I’ve been thinking of.
Recalcitrant silence is the silence of stubborn protest, of withdrawal. It is the silence of putting up a wall to keep others out. It is not a lack of words, but rather a selfish silence meant to hurt, to damage relationships, or to assert some kind of autonomy. Sometimes it comes from fear, sometimes from pain, sometimes from anger. But it rarely solves the problem. I would have to admit that I have had a lifetime’s struggle against this kind of silence – it comes quite naturally to me and I have to constantly search my heart to make sure that the motives behind my silence are productive.
The unspeakable silence is a silence that acknowledges something where words just will not suffice. Often unspeakable silence deals with the very real grief that cannot be understood, but can only be experienced. One place that you can experience this is at the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C.. The first time I visited there, I noticed how even the smallest children got quiet as they approached the Wall. There is something beyond words that invokes a silence there. The same can be said for Ground Zero – it is a place where words fail and silence is the only human response. But the silence of unspeakableness can show up in our daily lives as well, when we are just present with someone who has lost a loved one, and instead of talking let the unspeakable loss fill the room. There is a silence that speaks volumes, but it requires us to overcome our fear of grief and loss, the inadequacy of understanding, our inability to make the pain go away.
Present silence, as I am calling it, is silence that is inwardly aware and outwardly observant. I think this is the kind of silence that most monks hope to achieve, and that the rest of us should strive for as well. It is the kind of silence that listens deeply to the shape of our life, to the place where we look deep into our soul and find God looking back at us. It requires us to see beyond the fear, the pain, the loss, and the many layers of masks we’ve accumulated, to the place where God’s deepest desires for us are revealed. Only when we have been to that place can we be completely present to listen to others. It is from that place, the deep reservoir of our soul, that we can observe others and notice how we can serve them. It is from there that silence becomes not a way of hiding from the world, but of seeing the world as it truly is and as God wants it to be.
Our culture is a culture of noise. Try driving for an hour without the radio on. Try spending a whole night at your home without the television or radio on. We are a people that cannot tolerate silence. Do you wonder why that is? What empty space is that noise filling? Perhaps it is the quiet place where God tends to make his presence known. And perhaps we are afraid of actually experiencing the presence of God. Perhaps it is time for us to relearn the monastic value of silence.
Here are two poems by Rumi about silence:
There is a way between voice and presence
where information flows
In disciplined silence it opens.
With wandering talk it closes.
Inside this new love, die.
Your way begins on the other side.
Become the sky.
Take an axe to the prison wall.
Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.
Do it now.
You're covered with thick cloud.
Slide out the side. Die,
and be quiet. Quietness is the surest sign
that you've died.
Your old life was a frantic running
The speechless full moon
comes out now.