We have an ambiguous relationship to silence. There are times when we fear it and try to avoid it and there are other times when we are tired and over-stimulated and positively long for it. Generally, though, we have too little of it in our lives.
Work, conversation, entertainment, news, distractions, and preoccupations of every kind seem to fill up our every waking minute. We have become so used to being stimulated by words, information, and distractions that we feel lost and restless when we find ourselves suddenly alone, without someone to talk to, something to watch, something to read, or something to do to take up our attention.
Not all of this is bad, mind you. In the past, spiritual writers were generally too one-sided in extolling the virtues of silence. They tended to give the too-simple impression that God and spiritual depth were only found in silence, as if the joys of human work, conversation, celebration, family, and community were somehow opposed to spiritual growth. Former spiritualities, in speaking of the place of silence, generally penalized extroverts and let introverts off too easily. They didn’t sufficiently take into account that all of us, extroverts and introverts alike, not only need silence but also the therapy of a public life. Silence can sometimes be an escape, an avoidance of the stinging purification that often can happen only through the challenge of interacting within a family and a community.
Moreover, silence is not always the best way to deal with heartaches and obsessions. Ultimately these are a form of over-concentration and sometimes when a heartache is threatening our sanity the best thing, we can do for it is not go to the chapel but rather go to the theatre or to the pub with a friend. Preoccupation with work or a healthy distraction can sometimes be just the friend you need when your heart is fighting asphyxiation.
There is a story told about the famous philosopher, Hegel. Immediately after finishing his monumental work on the phenomenology of history, he realized that he was on the edge of a major breakdown because of the intensity of his concentration over so long a period of time. What did he do to break out of this? Go on a silent retreat? No. He went to the opera every night, dined every day with friends, and sought out every kind of distraction until, after a while, the strangling grip of his inner world finally let go and the sunshine and freshness of everyday life broke in again. Sometimes distraction, not silence, is our best cure, even spiritually.
But there is still a need for silence. What great spiritual writers of all ages tried to teach on this can perhaps captured in a single line from Meister Eckhart a German Catholic theologian, philosopher and mystic: “There is nothing in the world that resembles God as much as silence.”
In essence, Eckhart is saying this: Silence is a privileged entry into the realm of God and into eternal life, there is a huge silence inside each of us that beckons us into itself, and the recovery of our own silence can begin to teach us the language of heaven. What is meant by this?
Silence is a language that is infinitely deeper, more far-reaching, more understanding, more compassionate, and more eternal than any other language. In heaven, it seems, there will be no languages, no words. Silence will speak. We will wholly, intimately, and ecstatically hold each other in silence, in perfect understanding. Words, for all their value, are part of the reason why we can’t do this already. They divide as much as they unite. There is a deeper connection available in silence. Lovers already know this, as do the Quakers whose liturgy tries to imitate the silence of heaven, and as do those who practice contemplative prayer. John of the Cross expresses this in a wonderfully cryptic line: “Learn to understand more by not understanding than by understanding.”
Silence does speak louder than words, and more deeply. We experience this already now in different ways: When we are separated by distance or death from loved ones, we can still be with them in silence; when we are divided from other sincere persons through misunderstanding, silence can provide the place where we can still be together; when we stand helpless before another’s suffering, silence can be the best way of expressing our empathy; and when we have sinned and have no words to restore things to their previous wholeness, in silence a deeper word can speak and let us know that, in the end, all will be well and every manner of being will be well.
“There is nothing in the world that resembles God as much as silence.” It’s the language of heaven and its already deep inside of us, beckoning us, inviting us to deeper intimacy with everything.
Fr. Ron Rolheiser