24 August 2016

Followup Questions on Silence as Redemptive

[[Dear Sr Laurel, referring to your article on the importance of silence to the hermit's witness, I just don't understand what it means to say that God speaks to us in silence or that silence can be redemptive. I think I also wonder if a person going into silence and solitude might not imagine God speaking to them. "Locutions" is a new word for me and I don't mean to offend but isn't it more likely that a hermit hears what they want or need to hear and it really just comes from themselves?]]

It's not always easy to understand silence, especially when we try to do so from the outside. While it may refer to the absence or relative absence of noise, Silence (with a capital S) is also and more truly the abyss and ground of all creation we refer to as God. More and more we each must learn to entrust ourselves to that silence, which, we will find embraces us and loves us without deficiency, limitation, or condition. When we do this we will find that over time (usually a lifetime) and layer by layer, we come face to face with ourselves and as we do that we will also encounter the demons and distortions of our own hearts, all of the ways life has wounded, distorted, and broken us --- and our profoundest gifts and potentials as well. As we do this a choice is always present: will we continue to be defined in this way or will we see ourselves in light of the loving embrace or gaze of God and allow ourselves to become all God calls us to be?

Silence as Redemptive:

In the article you mentioned I implied that there are many silences --- some of pain, anxiety, grief, mutenesses of all sorts (embarrassment, shame, ignorance, fear, prudence, discretion), etc. No doubt you have experienced many if not all of these. Imagine what these are like when they are met with a refusal of another to hear you during these times --- when they are met with the silence of rejection or abandonment or even of hatred. These silences are exacerbated and even transformed into an existential scream of anguish --- a silent but noisy scream that may express itself in all kinds of attitudes and behaviors. But now, imagine that a person who has been transformed in such a way meets a deeper silence, a silence capable of embracing the entire person they are and truly hearing them. What would happen?

Imagine when someone simply sits with a person in need, perhaps for hours at a time, and listens to and also gazes at them in loving silence. They provide a welcome, healing, empowering silence, a silence of safety and personal summons. Imagine a therapist doing this, or a spiritual director --- regularly over time. Imagine a similar silence when two friends choose simply to be with one another because they love and delight in one another. Imagine a person gradually entrusting herself to the silence of prayer again and again, first pouring out her heart in words and tears and then, giving even more of herself, including the parts of herself she cannot understand much less articulate, to a deeper silence which embraces the whole of herself --- and imagine that as a result of entrusting herself in this way she finds herself comprehended and loved --- that, in fact, she is returned to herself as newly coherent because she is loved beyond imagining.

We have all had experiences like this, experiences of silence in which we meet ourselves more honestly and clearly than life usually allows, experiences of silence that quiet the unceasing noise of our own pain and strivings, and softens the fear associated with them as it allows us to take a step back from these; we've all had experiences of silence that are affirming and accepting of all we bring to them, experiences of silence which re-contextualize the facts of our lives and allow them and us to make a new kind of sense, experiences of silence which somehow quiet and transform the chaos of our lives or the cacophony of our minds and hearts into songs and symphonies expressing a compassionate creativity at work both in and through us --- even while it transcends us utterly. We have each and all had very much smaller but similarly redemptive experiences of silence as well: times of play and relaxation and concentration when the silences gave birth to poetry and music, to images and insights, perceptions and inspirations of truth, beauty, and meaning in myriad degrees and forms.


Occasionally (even very infrequently) in the profound silences of prayer or of our environment we may hear a word or phrase or even a complete sentence which addresses us in the deepest parts of our being.These words and sentences tend to speak to us in our deepest needs as well --- which may mean they address us and reveal our deepest potentialities and gifts too. In my experience, limited as it is, these come from within us but also transcend what we know or can allow ourselves to imagine. One might hear the special name God calls them by or an affirmation of the value one has to God. One may hear a commissioning, a sending forth to serve, and so forth. I want to stress that these kinds of events happen "from within"; we hear them inside our own heads and while this is so there is usually a profound sense they come from God, not from ourselves.

I do not personally trust supposed or reported locutions which are either very frequent or consist of long speeches, for instance, and I can understand why you might distrust the phenomenon as a whole. But I know Sisters I trust profoundly who have had "locutions"  (they tend to be highly aural persons) and I have experienced a relatively small number of them myself of the type I described. If one prays regularly and lives in a constant dialogue with and attentiveness to God chances are pretty good there will be (very) occasional locutions. I believe these kind of "come with the territory" --- they are not necessarily signs of great holiness or spiritual advancement. Still, given the limits I mentioned, they tend to be of God, the God who bears witness to Godself in our hearts.

By the way, the locutions I have experienced or heard described have a uniquely memorable quality. They function a bit like a refrain in a song but in this case they are a refrain in our lives which punctuate and underscore the songs we are. There is no need for them to be frequent or numerous because they communicate something central which, like ecstatic experiences in prayer, can speak to us for the rest of our lives and never really be exhausted of meaning.

God Speaking in Silence

Just to be sure I have explained a little more of what I mean by God speaking in silence let me say that I do not mean locutions. Instead what I mean is that the immense or infinite Silence which is God --- a silence which contextualizes our lives, wraps us in love, and transforms our noisiness into quiet and our isolation into solitude is the very speech of God. One who dwells in silence learns to "hear" it. It is experienced as an accompanying and empowering music which allows one's life and, in fact, the whole of creation to achieve articulateness. It is the condition of possibility of the Word being made flesh and flesh being made Word. I know this can sound like nonsense --- the notion of "hearing silence" is difficult to convey. I hope you will trust me that this is real even when my explanations are completely inadequate.