The Sound[s] of Silence

“… the sound[s] of silence.” Those words, to those of us who are children of the 60’s have a very special meaning. It was 1964. The country was reeling in the aftermath of the assassination of President John Kennedy. The Viet Nam war is raging. The protest movements (anti-war and civil rights) are finding their voice and momentum; the exploration of alternative lifestyles is becoming a national fascination (either being fascinated with the possibilities they seemed to offer or fascinated with condemning it – either way, people were focused). Paul Simon articulated in those four words, the tragic character of the human condition. The lyrics flesh out the meaning and I highly recommend it to you as a study in “fallen-ness” and a powerful portrayal of sin and death using “non-religious” language.

In my last blog post I spoke of the need to know and make known and the role of words in that quest. I must, now, speak of silence as an means in that quest but the fruit of that quest.

Silence is both a means to fulfill the need to know AND it is one of the ways that we make known what we have come to know. All of us budding contemplatives could bring forth our favorite quotes from the ancient church fathers and more contemporary authors (Merton, Nouwen, Lewis, etc.) regarding the nature of silence and its life-giving and life-robbing usages. John Chryssavgis, in his excellent exploration of the desert monastics, In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, reminds us of the multifaceted character of silence:

Silence is a way of waiting, a way of watching, and a way of listening to what is going on within and around us. It is a way of interiority, of stopping and then of exploring the cellars of the heart and the center of life. It is a way of entering within, so that we do not ultimately go without. Silence is never merely a cessation of words; that would be too restrictive and too negative a definition of silence. Rather, it is the pause that holds together—indeed, it makes sense of—all the words, both spoken and unspoken. Silence is the glue that connects our attitudes and our actions. Silence is fullness, not emptiness; it is not an absence, but the awareness of a presence. (pg.46)

I have, in my part time office, a roll of good old gray duct tape with a crocheted crossing lying on top of it. In front of it is a card that reads, “So often, the wisest course is, quite simply, to shut the heck up and just listen!!” Now, I cannot brag that I actually do that very often. I have a not so private conviction that if we only said 20% of what we believed we really needed to say we would be a lot better off. That 80% is “a real bugger.” Perhaps 10% would be even better than 20%…

Anyway, I have implied several things so far. First, silence is substantial not empty. Second, it can, as the Paul Simon reminded us be the agent of death not just a means toward life in its fullness – “the silent treatment” etc. Second, silence is one of the most important environments in which to pursue the acquisition of knowledge; be it intellectual or relational. (I want to signal to you, the insightful reader, that I do understand the yearning to know and make known, in its most sophisticated manifestation, to be most deeply relational not just intellectual. “Be still and know that I am God,” is not an invitation to a seminar but to become married and enter not only the bridal chamber but a whole life of true and unfathomable union!!) And, of course, I don’t just mean physical silence. I mean silence (stillness – “hesychia”) as a person in the interior life as well as the exterior life. Third, the idea of silence as not just the cessation of speech implies that I must listen. Wow, what a concept… Third, a/the word (articulation in all its multifaceted verbal and physical expression) issues forth from this substantial silence. It is its creator and the very likeness in of its creator and the location of conception, gestation, and birth – the womb.

So, as I indicated in my previous blogpost, we yearn to receive and offer a word. But, let realize and hold even more deeply the conviction that we need to receive and offer a life-giving environment of silence in which agape love is available, in which our word can be heard, received, and offered as we have received it. This too and even more essentially is the authentic expression of our full humanity.

Out of the undivided substantial silence of the uncreated/eternal relationship of self-giving/receiving (perichoresis) love between the persons of the Holy Trinity, the Son is eternally begotten by the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit as His Word. In turn articulates by the power of the same Holy Spirit as the Son of the Father whose Word He is and Whose Word, the Father and Son are, the universe is created as the spoken word of the Word of the Father. The creation has, as its inherent design, a voice that expresses the Word, according to its kind (declares His glory – see Psalm 19 & 98). The very same, one and only, articulation of love continues. Into His creation the Word enters by becoming flesh – as an authentic human being. We are to be authentically human I(receiving and manifesting [articulating] the nature of God) by the working of grace. All that Christ Jesus is by nature – the word of God – we are by His grace, the word of God. The relationship silence (silent word) and articulated word (worded silence) that is true of God is to be true for us – authentic human life. The [blessed] sound(s) of silence – Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia !!

Fr. Thomas

(p.s. – If I have committed any heresy in the last paragraph, it is inadvertent and I repent :o)

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Words and Human Being Fulfilled

Language, vocabulary, the need to learn, the need to articulate, be it in written or spoken form, and, hopefully, communicate for good what has been learned are essentially human. The yearning and fulfillment of that desire are one characteristic of a life that has earned the right to be labeled “authentically human.” In this regard, the educational enterprise, the journey toward maturity and the transformation it requires is a warfare against ignorance, delusion, the serving of selfish interests, and ultimately the desire (known or unknown) to thwart the will and purpose of God who created us in His image with the yearning to “know and make known.” It is the heartbeat of the “great commission” (Matthew 28.16-20).

Sadly, I find that words are viewed and used as a cheap commodity. I fall prey to treating them cheaply (in the way I receive and offer them) and am saddened when I realize that I have done so. The Rev. J.P. Gulliver related, in an article in The New York Independent, on September 4, 1864, Abraham Lincoln’s recollections about his early education and the underlying ambition he possessed regarding it. Here is the pertinent excerpt.

Gulliver: “I want very much to know how you got this unusual power of ‘putting things.’ I [sic] must have been a matter of education. No man has it by nature alone. What has your education been?”

Lincoln: “Well as to education, the newspapers are correct – I never went to school more than six months in my life. But as you say, this must be a product of culture in some form. I have been putting the question you ask me, to myself, while you have been talking. I can say this, that, among my earliest recollections, I remember how, when a mere child, I used to get irritated when anybody talked to me in a way I could not understand. I don’t think I ever got angry at anything else in my life. But that always disturbed my temper, and has ever since. I can remember going to my little bedroom, after hearing the neighbors talk of an evening with my father, and spending no small part of the night walking up and down, and trying to make out what was the exact meaning of some of their, to me, dark sayings. I could not sleep, though I often tried to, when I got on such a hunt after an idea, until I had caught it; and when I thought I had got it, I was not satisfied until I had repeated it over and over, until I had put it in language plain enough, as I thought, for any boy I knew to comprehend. This was a kind of passion with me, and it has stuck by me, for I am never easy now, when I am handling a thought, till I have bounded it north and bounded it south, and bounded it east and bounded it west. Perhaps that accounts for the characteristic you observe in my speeches, though I never put the two things together before.”

Gulliver: “Mr. Lincoln, I thank you for this. It is the most splendid educational fact I ever happened upon. This is genius, with all its impulsive, inspiring, dominating power over the mind of its possessor, developed by education into talent, with its uniformity, its permanence, and its disciplined strength, always ready, always available, never capricious — the highest possession of the human intellect…”

There are very few among us who can lay claim to the right to stand in the company of Abraham Lincoln as an example of the fulfillment of what Abe portrays as a core value that governed his life — the acquisition and effective communication of knowledge. He does not stand alone. We can, of course, think of many men and women who could stand with him. They are few and far between. One of the things we do know about this attritbute is how costly it is to obey. You can see the cost become etched on the face of Lincoln as he perseveres to be and become “authentically human.” Nonetheless, we can share the desire to do so at some future point in time. At least I do… I too yearn to possess the degree of humility and teachable soul in companionship with others that Lincoln possessed. I share this intentionality. I believe it to be one of the keys to progressing along the way in the “upward call”…

Fr. Thomas