20 January 2008

The Sound of Silence



I asked an old monk, "How long have you been here?"
"Forever," he answered. " I smiled.
"Fifty years, Father?"
"Forever."
Did you know St. Benedict?"
"We are novices together."
"Did you know Jesus?"
"He and I converse every day."
I threw away my silly smile, fell to my knees, and clutched his hand.
"Father, " I whispered, "Did you hear the original sound?"
" I am listening to the original sound."

Those who pray contemplatively know this experience. It is the experience of being at the center, of having everything make a new kind of sense and having it feel alive with a new kind of life and light; colors are more vibrant, flowers and plants seem lit from within with a unique iridescence; the gentle movement of the breeze through the branches occasions awe and even a sudden intake of breath as the everpresent movement of the Holy Spirit becomes symbolically "visible" for a moment. It is the experience of being part of the same story with our Sister, Mary, and our Brothers, Paul and Benedict, alive in the God who grounds us and resides deep in the core of our being, but who silently and as insistently summons us from without as well.

It is the experience of resting, really resting -- of being where one is meant to be, where one has ALWAYS been meant to be --- the experience of stepping out of time and taking up a place in the eternal heart of the Holy Trinity. God in us, we in Him, a communion of saints learning to love as God loves, to listen as God listens, to sing our lives and celebrate the singing of others' lives, to be the inestimable gifts to one another in Him we were always called to be --- and yet, always beginners, and always with everything ahead of us. It is the experience of being comprehended in every sense of that word: being profoundly heard, understood, known, held securely in God's hands, and completely encircled by his presence. It is the sound of silence and the compassionate space of contemplative solitude.

Time travel is an interesting subject for speculation, but for contemplatives it is something known from regular experience. Every day eternity breaks in upon us. Every day we slip the bonds of mere temporality and participate in time's transfiguration. Chronos becomes Kairos; linear time dissolves into an eternal now, and our citizenship in this world is shown for the pale reflection it is of our truest citizenship in the Kingdom of God. But we do not do this to reject the created realm for some "supernatural" one, much less to leave it behind in a misguided anti-world asceticism. We do it so this world may BE transfigured, and God may come to be ALL in ALL.

Contemplation, afterall, is not escape, but a quiet confrontation, capitulation, and mediation; it is not flight, but an accepting and transforming presence. The hermitage or cell is separate from the world only so the world may be truly loved into its own in genuine intimacy, for real intimacy requires distance as well as closeness. An anchorite has a window into the church, and peeks out onto eternity as it breaks in on the world in the liturgy. But really, every true hermitage (and every true hermit!) is a window through which the love of the living God radiates to transform the world of space and time into heaven itself.