Desert Day 21: At Home In The Silence …

Be silent, O all flesh, before the Lord. — Zech 2:13

Where shall the Word be found,
where will the word resound?
Not here.
There is not enough silence.
— T. S. Elliott from Collected Poems (Ash Wednesday)

 

To enter the unspeakable requires a quiet courage that points to what is often out of reach, though it is never far from us. Not unspeakable because it is awful, but because it lives beneath words. Not touching that silence and what lives there isolates us from the web of Spirit that connects everything. Then we lapse into what feels like a broken world of nothing. But entering that silence, the unspeakable shows itself as the thread of light that holds the web of life together. Feeling these threads, I am reanimated in a world where each small part contains everything.
— Mark Nepo from Seven Thousand Ways to Listen

 

There is hardly ever a complete silence in our soul. God is whispering to us wellnigh incessantly. Whenever the sounds of the world die out in the soul, or sink low, then we hear these whisperings of God. He is always whispering to us, only we do not always hear, because of the noise, hurry, and distraction which life causes as it rushes on.
— Frederick William Faber from Spiritual Conferences

 

At first this silence had seemed a deprivation, a symbol of an unwanted isolation. I had resented the solitude of my life and fought it. But gradually the enveloping quiet became a positive element, almost a presence, which settled comfortably and caressingly around me like a soft shawl. It seemed to hum, gently but melodiously, and to orchestrate the ideas that I was contending with, until they started to sing too, to vibrate and reveal an unexpected resonance. After a time I found that I could almost listen to the silence, which had a dimension all of its own. I started to attend to its strange and beautiful texture, which, of course, it was impossible to express in words. I discovered that I felt at home and alive in the silence, which compelled me to enter my interior world and walk around there. Without the distraction of constant conversation, the words on the page began to speak directly to my inner self. They were no longer expressing ideas that were simply interesting intellectually, but were talking directly to my own yearning and perplexity. I was no longer just grabbing concepts and facts from my books, using them as fodder for the next interview, but learning to listen to the deeper meaning that lay quietly and ineffably beyond them. Silence itself had become my teacher.

This, of course, is how we should approach religious discourse. Theology is—or should be—a species of poetry, which read quickly or encountered in a hubbub of noise makes no sense. You have to open yourself to a poem with a quiet, receptive mind, in the same way as you might listen to a difficult piece of music. It is no good trying to listen to a late Beethoven quartet or read a sonnet by Rilke at a party. You have to give it your full attention, wait patiently upon it, and make an empty space for it in your mind. And finally the work declares itself to you, steals deeply into the interstices of your being, line by line, note by note, phrase by phrase, until it becomes part of you forever. Like the words of a poem, a religious idea, myth, or doctrine points beyond itself to truths that are elusive, that resist words and conceptualization. If you seize upon a poem and try to extort its meaning before you are ready, it remains opaque. If you bring your own personal agenda to bear upon it, the poem will close upon itself like a clam, because you have denied its unique and separate identity, its own inviolable holiness. I had found this to be true in my study of literature. As soon as I had stopped trying to use it to advance my career, it began to speak to me again. Now I was having exactly the same experience with theology.

The religious traditions have all stressed the importance of silence. They have reminded the faithful that these truths are not capable of a simply rational interpretation. Sacred texts cannot be perused like a holy encyclopedia, for clear information about the divine. This is not the language of everyday speech or of logical, discursive prose. In some traditions, words are thought to contain the sacred in their very sound. When Hindus chant the syllable aum, its three distinct phases evoke the essence of the gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, while the silence that follows when the reverberation of the chant has finally died away expresses the attainment of Brahman, the supreme but unspeakable reality. Other scriptures are chanted or sung in a liturgical setting that separates them from profane speech and endows them with the nonconceptual attributes of music. You have to listen to them with a quietly receptive heart, opening yourself to them either in ritual or through yogic disciplines designed to abolish secular modes of thought. That is why so many of the faiths have developed a form of the monastic life, which builds a disciplined silence into the working day.
—Karen Armstrong from The Spiral Staircase

 

The one fact we forget is that the saints of old were capable of spiritual silence simply because they had not contracted our modern habit of ceaseless talk in their ordinary life. Their days were days of silence, relieved by periods of conversation, while ours are a wilderness of talk with a rare oasis of silence.
Andrew Murray

 

 

 

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