29 March 2016

Why is Silence so Important to a Hermit's Witness?

[[Dear Sister, why is silence so important for the witness of a hermit? One hermit's blog writes a lot about hearing God speak to her and getting messages from Saints so I was wondering if that was typical? My pastor has spoken of silence being necessary to hear God speak to us in the depths of our hearts but that seems pretty different to me than having God send messages and making "assignments". Is silence part of the "experience of redemption" you recently said was so central to the hermit's life?]]

Really excellent questions --- especially the last one about the experience of redemption and silence. I think that silence is central to the hermit's experience of redemption and that it is an important piece of the witness she gives for precisely this reason. One of the really difficult experiences accompanying and often intensifying people's sufferings is the apparent silence of God. Folks who leave the Church often complain that their prayers went unanswered, that God was silent and unresponsive. They conclude either that God is unloving or uncaring, or perhaps that God is simply too remote, truly impersonal, and thus too, entirely irrelevant. They may similarly conclude that God is powerless or simply non-existent and that prayer is useless and the result of juvenile or at least naive wishfulness.

Novelists write powerfully about the silence of God and the way God is indicted by this. In the work, Silence, Shusako Endo pits the incredible suffering of the people against the apparent silence of God. Survivors of the Holocaust put God on trial because their prayers were apparently met with silence; they accused God of having failed to keep the covenant God had made with his people. They had been his People but the evidence of the holocaust's millions murdered indicated God had failed to be their God. The silence of God is one of those realities which challenges us most profoundly and to which our faith is most vulnerable. It is also a reality which is central to the eremitical life both as a challenging and penitential context expressing our yearning for God, and as a consoling element reflecting our wholeness and completion in God. Silence can be an expression of isolation, meaninglessness, and the seeming unresponsiveness of God or it can be an expression of the covenantal solitude in which we are completed as persons and come to quies, or shalom.

I can't say that God speaks TO me directly very often but I can say that God is frequently, even continuously speaking me, that is, calling my name and summoning me to fullness of life and wholeness. I have learned that most profoundly in silence and in the life that comes in silence. So many times silence reflected my own emptiness and incapacity --- just as it does with all of us. At one point before I became a hermit I thought I had reached the end of my strength, the end of my ability to see any meaningfulness in my life, any potential for serving God or his People. I had nothing to say except the single question, "WHY?!" and in asking this, I expected no real answers. It was most usually the silent cry of anguish I myself was. Only rarely was I able to pose it directly, to speak it aloud or claim it as my identity which called for an Other. Silence in those times was a terrible trial; but it was also a gift which opened me to a transcendent truth and love beyond anything I could have imagined.

In my own life I needed a God who would not simply answer my facile or sometimes desperate prayers but would instead embrace me in all of my poverty, emptiness, and inarticulateness, a God who would love me enough to bring life and  wholeness out of these. That required entering into these realities in silence to plumb their depths --- depths beyond words, thoughts, images, even beyond my more usual cries of anguish, apparent yearnings, etc both to meet God there and to open these realities to God. Isn't this the very nature of prayer Paul speaks of in Romans 8:26: [[the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words;]] In time it (silence) became a necessary condition for the gift God would make of my life and the circumstances of that life. It became a piece of what my life witnesses to --- namely the importance of entering silence in all of its depths and painfulness precisely so that God can bring life out of death and an articulate and meaningful "word" even out of complete muteness. All of this is something that happens in silence.

As a result I generally distrust the notion of a spirituality which is or seems to be little more than a series of "messages" from God or "assignments" or "locutions," and "visions." I distrust this especially in one claiming to be a hermit. Not only are these seductive and potentially idolatrous, but, except in rare instances which are truly of God, they seem to me to be distractions from the silence of solitude. I don't think they are typical of eremitical spirituality at all. Hermits grapple with silence; more importantly though, they grapple with their own frailty and poverty in silence. They allow the absolute Silence and cosmic Song we know as God to embrace even their life's worst and most painful silences, and transfigure these so that they too may sing their part in what hermits call "the silence of solitude" --- the covenantal "quies" and communion with God the authentic hermit (indeed, the authentic human being) truly is.

As noted above, out of our personal and external silence and physical solitude comes EITHER what the tradition refers to as "the silence of solitude" and the achievement of quies or hesychasm which result when human emptiness and divine fullness meet one another and powerless muteness is embraced by the Love we know as God, OR our lives are and remain a searing indictment of God and God's silence. It is, I think, a terrible temptation in such circumstances to "hear" God speaking to us in locutions, to find God in visions and in the facile assurances of some fraudulent spirituality or shallow form of piety, but it is my experience that the revelation of God's presence and power generally comes in silence. (That is, it generally comes silently in a way which embraces and transfigures our own deepest silence.) Redemption itself comes in the meeting of our own profoundest silence which is deeper than, but encompasses all the joy and anguish, all the poverty and potentiality we know, and the incredibly fecund silence of the Love-in-Act which grounds and summons the cosmos into existence out of nothing.

Because the encounter of these deep silences is redemptive, then yes, silence is a central part of the redemption to which a hermit witnesses. This is so just as entering the terrible inarticulateness and even muteness of apparently meaningless suffering or the silence of senseless death while encountering the terrible silence of God is part of the redemption achieved in the Christ Event. In that event what could have been the most damning indictment of God's silence becomes instead the most profound witness to the scope and power of Divine Love's embrace.

As I have noted here before, our culture knows little of dwelling in silence. It fears it, considers it fruitless and perhaps significant of failure; knowing it is both associated with suffering and can unmask and occasion suffering, we generally fill it with sound of every kind. We deflect it and distract from it and when noise becomes too great we layer more noise on top of it rather than embracing  greater silence. We all know the truism that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God --- or to meet ourselves in the silences of our own hearts, much less to plumb these to their depths. We also know, I think, that as a result shallowness and superficiality mark our lives and relationships.

In our relationship with God we may fill our side of things with prayers and should we somehow meet the silence of God during a prayer period, we are apt to claim instead that God was absent or uncaring or simply failed to hear us. But hermits witness to the need for silence and solitude in becoming truly human --- in becoming the prayer God has made us to be. Beyond the need for external silence and physical solitude they witness to the silence of solitude that results when we allow ourselves to struggle with(in) and fall through these lesser silences deep into the hands of the Silent, Living God whose Word we are meant to enflesh and whose counterparts we are made and called to become.