29 August 2016

Eremitical Silence: Harrowing as well as Hallowing

[[Dear Sister, I appreciate what you say about silence as redemptive but I wonder if silence is always a comfortable reality for you? You have written that most folks find silence frightening and I am wondering if you ever do? Thanks.]]

Great questions! I have written about the silence of solitude most of the time to stress that it is not a matter of being isolated or ultimately alone and most of the time that fact is comforting and consoling. But there are certainly times when being in silence is neither comforting nor consoling. Moreover, while God is present during these times he is present more in a felt sense of absence or remoteness because during these times we are thrown back upon ourselves "alone". At these times even prayer can be anguish because during these times of focused quiet especially when we open the depths of our hearts to God, we are plunged into memories of our own deepest experiences of pain and abandonment in order to plumb them to their depths. At least that is how it seems to me at these times. In experiencing some forms of woundedness and trauma we did not have a sense of God's presence; we were (we thought and felt) wholly alone and helpless. Sometimes in order to re-experience those times we may also need to re-experience that felt sense of God's absence as well. It seems to me that silence carries and conveys these kinds of experience most fully and profoundly. At these times silence can be immensely painful and, as you say, even downright terrifying.

But, painful and terrifying or not, this is one very real dimension of eremitical silence. Anyone who has walked in the deep desert has not only heard this silence but felt it on their skin. It presses in from every direction. Our loudest yell or whistle are ineffective and merely momentary; they are small and weak things immediately swallowed up in the silence as though they had never been while the desert silence remains pristine and inviolable. The hugeness of the silence here seems to laugh at our efforts at making a mark or disrupting things and we are left with a sense of our own infinitesimal smallness as the silence humbles us with its seemingly infinite expanse and depth. There is a weight to such silence, a kind of substance or solidity we would like to hold at bay because in doing so we can sometimes temporarily hold our own deepest pain and anguish at bay as well.  But to enter the silence, especially to commit to live our lives there, is to commit not merely to the comfort and solace of the silence of solitude, but to the terrifying quiet and aloneness whose  weight breaks open our hearts and minds and reveals the unhealed woundedness and suffering we have kept repressed and submerged there for so very long.  At these times images of Jesus' saving descent into hell (which we now pray to know first hand) or the desert Fathers and Mothers' battle with demons in the depths of the desert (which we already know first hand) take on a new significance and poignancy for us.

Silence, especially the silence of solitude can be hallowing as the touch of God is holy-making and healing, but eremitical silence can also be harrowing as the fire of abject aloneness or hell is harrowing. The personal work silence makes possible and even necessary will eventually lead to the hermit's healing and holiness. Even so, there is no doubt that God is sometimes present in  what we experience as absence and a challenging remoteness; it is when this is true that eremitical solitude can become the kind of hell already described; it is occasioned by the weight of her desert's immense silence, solitude, and the hermit's own commitment to obedience. This harrowing quality of silence, especially the silence of solitude is something she assented to when the Bishop publicly and solemnly questioned her on her willingness to embrace the various elements of this vocation shortly before admitting her to perpetual profession; it is likewise something she knowingly embraced in her vows and in accepting consecration.