When I was a student at Boston College, a Catholic school, I went to daily mass. (Daily mass is different from Sunday mass with all the regular worshippers. It’s very small and lacks any fanfare.) Every day at noon, whether I was going to be on campus for classes or not, I’d slip into the small chapel attached to the Jesuit residence and for half an hour, I’d occupy a pew, all by myself. It was critical to my spiritual health, providing the ability to survive a very demanding graduate program. The mass was led by one of two priests, both of whom understood why we were all there. They would begin the service without so much as a hello, allowing the silence of the room before their arrival to be undisturbed by unnecessary words. They’d begin with the name of god and quietly pray with and for us. They’d read from scripture, telling us stories that opened up larger human truths. They allowed for long periods when nothing was said, when no one moved. When we all just sat in our pews, still and silent.
After the mass ended, the priest would leave- he’d soft shoe from the chancel into the residence which was attached. He didn’t stand in the back of the room looking to shake hands, asking each person how they’re doing, like he’d do on a Sunday. He’d slip into the darkness behind the curtain, leaving us to sit in silence. For some time after it ended, I’d stay, surrounded by a hush.
Once, we had a fill in. A boisterous, ambitious young priest I knew from class. He had grand ideas of worship being about community, so when he arrived he hollered to the back of the room “Come, join us up here”. To those sitting apart from each other, he said “Squeeze in”. He didn’t understand that Sundays were for crowds; daily mass was for solitude.
Annie Dillard wrote:
“At a certain point, you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world, Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening. After a time you hear it: there is nothing there. There is nothing but those things only, those created objects, discrete, growing or holding, or swaying, being rained on or raining, held, flooding or ebbing, standing, or spread. You feel the world's word as a tension, a hum, a single chorused note everywhere the same. This is it: this hum is the silence. Nature does utter a peep - just this one. The birds and insects, the meadows and swamps and rivers and stones and mountains and clouds: they all do it; they all don't do it. There is a vibrancy to the silence, a suppression, as if someone were gagging the world. But you wait, you give your life's length to listening, and nothing happens. The ice rolls up, the ice rolls back, and still that single note obtains. The tension, or lack of it, is intolerable. The silence is not actually suppression: instead, it is all there is.”
Silence comes easily for some people. I’m one of those. I also know some people struggle with an ability to shift into silence, to turn off the shopping lists and anxieties or daydreams that can fill the time between conversations. As it happens, I can move easily into a deep and quiet place. And, I need at least some time every a day for even a simple meditation. Without it, I’m unfocused and over time I’m frantic and angry. My inherent need for silence might be unexpected since I make my living by talking. Emails and phone calls and written reports and pastoral care and preaching and meetings all require me to speak through most of my day. But, the words all begin in silence. If they are authentic, they come from a place that is pre-language.
Silence is a spiritual practice. For me, and maybe for some of you, the silence is the beginning of the conversation, the place from which truth can be formed. Silence is not an absence, not a hole to be filled; it is the medium for truth to be known. And the truth silence brings is not intellectual; it’s a truth we know in our bodies, one that rests away from our brains wordlessly and ethereally. It’s a truth that comes from a deep place, one that can only be accessed after sinking into the quiet where the boundaries of self soften.
One of the places there are too many words is social media, a venue driven almost entirely by language. Because I believe that Facebook and Twitter in particular are agents of social change and terrifically effective places for community organizing and shifting moral norms, I try to be an active and visible presence. Most of the year, I engage close to two thousand people who have followed or friended me in a variety of conversations and strategies to shape the world in our vision of love. And, every January and July, I sign off. For two months each year, I silence the voices. I shut out those thousands of people to give silence more space in my life. I disconnect, disengage, disentangle myself for a little while from the world so that I can reconnect less with the masses and more with myself.
My first real step into pastoral ministry happened when I knew I had nothing to say. I was a campus chaplain and a popular student died. He’d been drinking on medication that conflicted with alcohol. He’d been warned by his doctor not to drink, but he was 19; he’d been warned by the state of NY not to drink also. Those rules didn’t apply to him that night. His death spread like wildfire through the campus and we needed to have a service immediately. Hundreds of students arrived, filling our chapel and the front lawn and, even though I wasn’t outside, I heard students filled the street as well, holding candles and keeping vigil. It was my first student death. His mother was with us. She sat in the front and howled in her pain. She was sobbing and kneeling on the floor and begging god to make this day go away. I was probably 29. I’d seen a lot of pain at that point in my life having worked with homeless and runaway kids before that, but this was my first experience so close to something this raw. After the service, students told me they wanted to talk to her, but they didn’t know what to say. It’s a line I’ve heard many times. Someone didn’t call, didn’t visit, didn’t attend a funeral because they didn’t know what to say.
It was then that I learned speaking isn’t always the way we heal. Words are limiting and can trivialize those experiences that are too deep for language. Being present to someone else’s suffering without having to speak is true companionship. Tolerating the not curing, not knowing, not healing requires some humility, an acceptance that we are small before great pain. But the failure of language is not all we have to offer. The book of Job tells us that after losing everything he had, everyone he loved, Job sat down on the ground in utter despair and three of his friends came along and saw how great Job’s suffering was and they sat with him for seven days and seven nights and no one spoke a word.
Silence itself can be the healing balm we need. Some people are trapped, though, inside their silence. Meeting someone in there, being present to an incapacity to speak is challenging. As part of my ministerial training I worked at a nursing home. One of our regular assignments was to write verbatims to be read aloud by other students in the class and then discussed as tools for learning. (A verbatim is a word for word recounting of an incident.) While I was preparing for this sermon, I remembered an experience I had and was thrilled to see that I’d written a verbatim. I wanted to find a way to talk about my experience with folks living with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, so I’m going to share it with you this morning. Generally there were at least two and sometimes several voices in these verbatims: chaplains and patients for sure and often family members or doctors or whomever was in the room for the difficult encounter. There was also a voice, for internal process. In this case, there are two voices, but both are mine. One is what I said and one is what I thought. I’m sharing it with you by way of our own shared meditation.
CI1: Good morning. I’m the chaplain on the floor today and I’m here to see how you’re doing.
Pt. turns her head toward me, but her eyes are focused behind me. I don’t say anything for a minute or so.
CI2: I saw you here in bed as I was passing by and thought maybe you could use some company.
Pt’s. eyes shift toward me and she puts out her hand. I take her hand and catch her gaze. I expect that she’ll begin to speak, so I wait quietly, giving her room to figure out what she wants to say or the time she needs to say it. As I sit in that expectant moment, I start to realize that she is not formulating a sentence or thought at all. She is nonetheless, holding my hand and staring at me.
As the silence extends, I feel the need to speak. I don’t know if she can hear me, but she does seem to see me. The urge to speak comes from a place of politeness- like it’s somehow rude to have entered her room and not to bring something.
CI3: Thank-you for giving me your hand.
Her eyes seem to register that I have said something, but there is no indication at all of whether or not she knows what I’ve said or why or who I am. Her stare begins to feel penetrating, like she’s looking for something. I keep my eyes wide open in hopes that she can find whatever it is she’s searching for.
I feel a shift within me that recognizes that this silence is not temporary, that I am going to be in this silence for some time. The shift within me is spiritual, like my center has dropped from my head to my feet where it anchors me to my exact location which contains not only my body but the Source of my being. The silence begins to take over the room so that the sounds in the building behind me seem distant and irrelevant.
I am feeling completely present to the silence and to the pt. who brought it to me. I stare into her green eyes as she stares into mine. Neither of us moves. There is a stillness to the room and to our bodies. My mind empties and I am aware of little other than the feel of her hand in mine and her relentless stare.
I’m unsure how much time passed. My thoughts have become slow and I am lost in the quiet.
I then begin to hope my eyes offer her comfort or familiarity or grounding of some kind. I wonder if she sees me or if I could be the TV. I become aware of my desire for this moment to have meaning for her, and as I do, I feel the silence retreat. I’m beginning to think rather than to be present to the moment. My center shifts from the source of my being, back up into my head. I put more energy into my stare, thinking I can go back, but the pt. seems to have noticed and pulls her hand away slightly. I let go. I lean back in the chair and her weight shifts backwards as well.
I stand up.
CI4: Good to be with you today. I will come by again tomorrow.
Pt’s eyes have refocused on the wall in front of her and I walk out of the room into the bright and busy hallway.
My encounter with that patient was powerful. We met in the silence, in her silence. But there’s more than just the quiet, more than an inaudibility, more than speechlessness. There is a depth of human experience.
W.B. Yeats, the 19th and early 20th century Irish poet wrote: “We can make our minds so like still water that beings gather about us that they may see, it may be, their own images, and so live for a moment with a clearer, perhaps even with a fiercer life because of our quiet.” (Twice?)
Silence is the tool that brings us back from fragmentation into wholeness. So many of us live lives of division, running from one thing to the next, waiting for moments just to sit down and when we do, it’s often in front of a screen or while waiting for whatever’s next, possibly someone who’s late who’s also living a life of fragmentation. There’s an accepted state of constant semi-attention to the sound of voices, music, traffic, the generalized noise of what goes on all the time around us or the volcano of words that crash on our computer screens with their attachments and links to more words and tweets and updates. This keeps us immersed in a flood of racket and words, a diffuse medium in which our consciousness is half-diluted: we are not quite “thinking,” not entirely responding. We are not fully present and not entirely absent; not fully withdrawn yet not completely available, leading us all into a state of semi-consciousness as we make our way through busy days. Silence is the healing balm that brings us back to ourselves and into right relationship with the world around us.
I’m talking about silence as a powerful spiritual tool. I’m also aware that silence can be a powerful tool of oppression. There’s another perspective to consider when we talk about finding God in the Silence. Silencing is not a gift nor is it healing. When you are silenced by political or social moors, when your voice can’t be heard, when your experience isn’t recognized, when you’ve been erased by dominant culture, you’ve been silenced. When our government removes mention of LGBTQ protections from anti-discrimination guidelines, millions of people are silenced. When the talking heads on TV giving their opinions about the day’s events are all white, millions of people are erased. When subways are designed so only people with working legs can use them, millions of people are disappeared. When previously incarcerated people aren’t given a vote, millions of people are muted. When bathrooms are labeled for men or women, millions of people are forgotten. When I list ways people are marginalized in my sermons, but I forget the way you live differently in the world, you are also silenced.
Silence can be a wrench closing the opening where the steam can get out, used by people in power to keep the hissing noise down. It can become a weapon of dominance, wielded to ensure submission and irrelevance. Language is used in courtrooms and welfare offices and at child protection hearings to ensure the silence and continued existence of an underclass.
And silence can become the resistance, a non-participation in the language of oppression. A response to subjugation. A liberation rather than an accommodation. Sometimes we use silence because it’s the only response to a world of too many words, of violent words, of threatening and destructive words. Silence can be self-determination. When systems use language to oppress, our non-participation can utilize silence as an expression of sovereignty.
But, mostly, I’m talking about silence as a spiritual tool, the silence that brings us back to ourselves, back to the Source of our being, the single place where we are most authentically who we are. There’s a voice that has to be heard without language. It’s the healing silence we experience when we first walk in our doors after a busy day, when we take that first deep breath; or that magical silence after a hymn of shared faith is over, when the last word was sung, the final note played; or the meditative silence of standing in a field while it snows.
Wisdom is born in silence, in our ability to be present without ego-consciousness.
Faith is fostered in silence, by the willingness not to explain it all.
Relationships are developed in silence, on our ability to be present without a cure.
Community is encouraged by silence, by sharing the common experience of allowing the boundaries of self to soften.
Clarity is found in silence, as a gift given in gratitude.