Monday, June 18, 2007

Two Kinds of Silence

Ruminating over the weekend at the Abbey about silence itself I came to the conclusion that silence usually comes in one of two types: Desolation or Consolation.

Remarkably similar to the Ignatian spirituality, both of these types of silence come from God. Both of these types of silence lead us back to Him. He designs each experience so that it can have its full effect, to make us love God and experience joy with Him eternally.

At the Abbey in Winter one of the most peaceful scenes I have ever witnessed is to look out over the snow covered valley outside the cloister and gaze at the blue tinted shadows, shadows which only half reveal the field stubble landscape underneath. To the ear, all is quiet, and a little deadened. This is one type of silence.

This wintery silence corresponds well to the dead times in my own soul's journey. These are times when words of prayer and proclamation, words of comfort and communication, cease to flow so easily.

Quiet is a defensive mechanism then. Or perhaps a healing one. These are times when we sense our souls drawing back into themselves, cringing and shriveling like dead leaves hanging on a branch, stirred by the wind.

There is something life-giving here, even in the winter, and not just by way of contrast and relief. It's not like when you come in from the cold and you finally get warmed up by the fire. It's more like this: you stand out in the cold for so long that it feels like even the cold has a peculiar warmth of its own.
However, one needs to beware the spiritual frostbite. You can feel warm and actually be in danger of losing a limb. To re-use the the metaphor of Jesus (Matthew 6:23), if even your light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness thereof. But if one is really listening, then I think there is little danger of being too long out in the cold desolation of silence. As Paul said, god does not tmept us beyond what we are able (1 Cor 10:13).

I like to preserve a preferential option for the other kind of silence: the silence of consolation. To me, that silence is like sitting with a long-loved partner and not needing to speak to him or her. The silence between you completes your sentences, one to the other. This silence is fertility personified.

That is the silence I heard this past weekend, sometimes between 5:00 and 5:30 a.m. on Saturday, after the Office Vigils but before Morning Prayer. It is a pregnant silence, not quite the time when the birds begin to sing and welcome the day. It happens before the time when the buzzing of cicadas or what-ever-the-heck is the Wisconsin equivalent begin their song.

It is the silence of potential fruitfulness, the silence which waits like the eyes of a handmaid for the answer of the Master (Ps 123). this the silence of knowing that god does all things well, while not knowing yet quite what God is up to.

As I think back on this silence and that great movie "Into Great Silence" I crave even more of that inward quiet, of both kinds. And one doesn't need to be a Carthusian to arrive there.

Turn off the car radio.

Sit still in the gloaming on the patio.

Listen with the ears of your heart.

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