09 July 2015

From Silence to the Silence of Solitude: The Imperceptible Journey

[[Dear Sister, I think of silence as a negative thing; it is something which is the absence of sound or noise. I do understand a little of what you mean when you say it is more than this but only a little. Maybe that's because I have a hard time being really quiet in prayer and when I am quiet I am afraid nothing is happening or that I am experiencing dryness or something. I mean I don't hear anything and I am supposed to be listening for God. I don't feel anything and God is supposed to be there loving me. What am I missing?]]

Thanks for a great question and especially for sharing what is a pretty intimate experience and concern. First of all I can't really say if you are missing anything, much less what that is, but I can say a little more about the nature of silence in prayer, and especially what I and others call "the silence of solitude". I also want to say something about dryness in prayer and what might be happening to you which would certainly not be dryness.

Our first and more superficial experience of silence is a "negative" thing --- not in the sense of it being without effect or constructiveness, but in the sense of taking or stripping away that which is unhelpful. It involves the quieting of noise, both external and internal, personal noise and the noise of our environment. We each experience this whenever we assure that our prayer space is conducive to prayer; it is part of clearing the space of any clutter, of journaling about the things that are really bothering us or are a matter of concern so that we can close the journal and hand it all over to God when we sit in prayer. It is a matter of stilling our breathing, relaxing our muscles, dropping our defenses and any fa├žade we may hold because of work, etc, and simply bringing ourselves to the moment in an act of self gift and trust.

Already I think it is becoming clear that in prayer we move imperceptibly into the realm of the "positive" dimension here. We move from the things we can more or less do ourselves, the setting of the scene, to the silence which is the work of the Holy Spirit within us ---- as much God's Silence as our own. The quiet act of trust we call faith is one of these. It is an empowered act, not something we can do of ourselves. That is why theologians like Paul Tillich speak about faith as the "state of being grasped. . ." and St Paul speaks of our knowing God but even more properly, of our being known by God. (Remember that Paul does not tease these two apart; he points to the first as a true description and then to the second as even more fundamentally true.) Profound silence is similar. While our descriptions of God often focus on creative speech or word, God is also and simultaneously a transcendent Silence out of which language and all the rest of reality springs; thus we often speak of God as "abyss," ground, or depth dimension --- all of which are most fundamentally matters of a deep but vital and dynamic silence.

In prayer what happens beyond the "negative" work of coming to relative silence we all recognize as our own work is that we are taken hold of by the profound Silence which is God. When this happens it is hard or even impossible to tease apart the silence we "achieve" and the silence that is "achieved" in us. It is at these times we know the communion with God and the whole of God's creation which is most clearly and profoundly what we call the silence of solitude . You may remember that I wrote, [[. . . the silence of solitude refers to what is created within the hermit, or better put perhaps, it refers to the person . . . who is created by the dialogue with God in the hermitage.  This is what I referred to when I spoke of shalom, or the wholeness, peace, and joy that is the fruit of an eremitical life. Much of the "noisiness" of human yearning and exertion is silenced; so is the scream of self-centeredness and the inability to listen to or hear others. One is at peace with God and with oneself; one is at home with God wherever one goes.]] All of this happens in prayer and is carried through the rest of the pray-er's life.

It is the Silence of God that stills our human yearnings and striving. It is the Silence of God that meets our own tentative and struggling attempts at quiet and completes them. It is the loving, embracing, silence of God that takes hold of us in prayer, soothes our stammerings and quiets our cries of anguish and emptiness. But it does so much more than this as well. God's own Silence is the silence that holds all things together in a way which makes sense of them; it is the all-embracing quies which makes music of the individual notes and rhythms of our lives and world. It is the deepest reality out of which all creation comes and all reconciliation is achieved, the hesychia in which everything truly belongs and is one. When and to the extent the Silence of God grasps us we become God's own prayers in our world, articulate words reflecting God's life and meaning, magnificats which are the transfigured stammerings of the journey from isolation and absurdity to genuine solitude and song. There is a reason Mary is sometimes called "a woman wrapped in silence"; only part of that has to do with her struggle and pain and inability to express what she knows and ponders in her own heart. The greater part has to do with the embrace of God which holds and makes sense of all things.

I think sometimes what people mistakenly call dryness is this incredible Silence. Maybe real dryness also means resisting this silence, fearing it and refusing to entrust ourselves to it, refusing to let it take hold of us or resisting resting in it even though we also yearn for it. Personally I know that I rarely feel dryness in prayer simply because I am not hearing or sensing anything. God is present and at work --- loving, calling, touching, healing, creating --- all the things God is and does in and as profound silence. I know and trust that. More, I know Silence as the Divine reality that can and does comprehend me even as it resides and sings within me. What I am encouraging you to do is to trust this Silence, this kind of no-thing, this abyss which is actually the fullness of God --- a fullness far too "big" (such an inadequate word!) to even perceive sometimes --- and don't label what happens in prayer as "dryness" quite so quickly or easily as you might otherwise do. From my experience I would say that what we are "listening for" is this transcendent and mysterious Silence. The love we are hoping to feel is actually an experience of this profound quies and sense of being encompassed and contextualized, the experience of being comprehended in every sense of that word by the Silence which is God.

As a kind of postscript, let me say that it is this Silence I think e. e. cummings knew when he wrote the wonderful poem I have had in the side bar of my blog since the day of my profession.

love is a place
& in this place of
love move
(with brightness of peace)
all places

yes is a world
& in this world of
yes live
(skillfully curled)
all worlds