Silence is complicity, I realize that. Sometimes, however, as a white man, silence is all you feel you can manage. (I don’t mean to use the language of management, it just seems to happen; and by “you,” the presumptive collective, I mean “I”). Silence, I tell myself, is better than __________. Better than “I don’t know” or “I’m sorry,” both lines containing politics: “I.” Maybe “I am the problem,” but even that—.Read More
Filtering by Tag: silence
Like a lot of kids, I used to fantasize about slugging a bottom of the ninth game winning home run for Cleveland. Game 7 of the World Series of course. Crack! And the crowd goes wild. I grew up some and fantasized about becoming a comedian, and even lived that one out a little bit, at least more than I ever lived out the game-winning home run fantasy. A whole room laughing at my jokes? Mozart himself couldn’t create a sound quite as beautiful. In the more recent past, I’ve thought about what it’ll be like to read from my National Book Award winning novel (you know, after I write it.) The reverberation of my own voice in lecture halls packed with fans. Fans? Nay, international literary aficionados. And then afterwards: “Mr. Luikart, absolutely stunning. A harrowing work. Truly.”
But right now, you know what sounds good? Utter silence. No, strike that. Sounds that go on and on, whether I’m there to hear them or not. Sounds like water dripping from the ceiling of an empty cave. Wind in pine trees. Ocean waves. Fire. In other words, the sound of a lack of me. I don’t really permit myself any kinds of reminders that the good of the world isn’t predicated upon the author of this blog entry. In fact, the world still crackles and splashes and burns whether or not I exist. So what good is it to exist? Of course that depends. Who are you? What religion do you (or don’t you) practice? Do you have suicidal tendencies? Likely, though, the answer falls on a line segment stretched between two philosophically opposite poles. At one pole, you might find people existing because they’re working out their salvation with fear and trembling. At the other, people who are hyper-aware of the meaningless of life and would just as soon fall off into the void.
The most profound image in the Bible to me is Jesus going off alone. Which might sound weird that I think that’s all that profound. The Bible is full of profound images: An entire sea magically dividing itself in half, for example. I have to imagine that Jesus’ life, except for those times He spent alone, was a non-stop cacophony of wailing and “Heal me! Save me!” and the ancient equivalent of “You’re making zero sense, Rabbi.”
The Bible tells us that Jesus went to be alone so He could pray, that is, to talk to and listen to God. Far be it from me to put my own feet in the footsteps of the Divine, but if I were Jesus and I’d just gotten away from my idiot best friends or a bunch of lepers whose body parts keep dropping off or all the hoity-toity church types who get their rocks off praying super loud and then, when I finally disappeared into the hills, my Father said to me, “Okay, here’s the next plan,” I think I might say, “Please, God. Let’s just be quiet. Okay? Just for a minute.”
L’Abri Fellowship has the unpredictability, fragility, and sacredness of conversation —real conversation— at the heart of its day-to-day life. But every Monday, the L’Abri community pushes a pause button on its traditional daily “discussion lunch,” and we all eat in silence. Together, but in silence. Monday also happens to be the international L’Abri day of prayer. So from 1-2 p.m. in a Manor House in Greatham, England we try to still our racing minds and anxious movements in order to just “be.”
The L’Abri worker who heads the table always plays a CD of music — usually sacred, often choral — that lasts the entire lunch hour. Some of us read a book, some of us pray, some of us just sit, wondering, thinking. Although we are free to sit elsewhere on the property, as long as we are silent for an hour, I enjoy it most when the majority of students stay in the large dining room; a community of 30-40 people sitting together in silence is something so intimate and fragile and beautiful. And as I sit in the beautiful dining room, sunlight spilling onto the faces of those sitting near the windows, the entire scene becomes somehow more Real.
Immersed in crowded solitude, I am forced to be present, forced to notice. This forcefulness is gentle, not violent, and it comes from simply making a space to be still, to look, to listen. As the scene is filtered through the rich compositions of Tavener, or Part, or Preisner, I see things that I have not seen before, such as the simple, stunningly beautiful red skin of strawberries sitting in a bowl before me. It’s almost like I momentarily gain the attentive eyes of the artist, and I see, as Wordsworth says, “into the life of things.”Looking around at the dining room’s four crowded tables, I am amazed by the diverse beauty, the life, the animating “Image-of-God” soul of each individual. The only response to the overwhelming fullness this gift of seeing brings is a simple “cup runneth over”prayer: “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
The director of English L’Abri, Andrew Fellows, often speaks about how contemporary Western culture has become “utterly banal” because the capacity for experiencing “things that are rich and profound” has become dulled. We are dulled down daily by repetitive excess consumption, by an endless desire for frenzied entertainment, by the lack of any ability to slow down, contemplate, and savor the present moment like a steaming plate of lovingly made food from a friend’s garden.
Fellows’ comments and my own frequent inability to “see” reminded me of a conversation that I recently had with my doctor after I had started a diet devoid of any sort of processed food or sugar. He told me that once the artificial has been cut out, one can actually begin to really taste again. Fruit will become much more sweet and delicious and we will lose our cravings for the false surrogates.
We all know that the “banal” world of artificial stimulation can dull our taste buds. And it can take away our sight. I am amazed that just by stopping to pause for one hour during a Monday lunchtime, I could taste — and see — again.
Tuesday, I give my junior high ESL classes a simple homework assignment. As you speak English, I say, pay attention to where you fall silent. Notice the words you don’t have English for. Then choose one of those that you think you really ought to know and look up the English definition.
I assign this mostly because my students, who speak Chinese at home, are having trouble wanting to speak English. I want them to start listening, and to be a little curious.
The next morning, the students remind me that they are ready to share their words. For once, everyone has done the homework. Their words are scribbled on small bits of paper: bride, executioner, honesty, forgive, ensue, barrette, vacuum cleaner, voodoo.
Lilith has brought in phenomenon. She says she means a word for “the strange and beautiful clouds.” Phenomenon fits, sort of, but I suspect that her Chinese word is more casual, less scientific. There are so many words like that. Words that fit perfectly in the shells of their original sounds. Words that resist being pried out and served up in just any language.
I help each student pronounce the English they’ve chosen. After I do, the students teach me their Chinese word.
Or rather, they try. Chinese has always been hard for me. My students wave their hands like orchestra conductors, trying to signal the up and down inflections of the Mandarin tones that fit so naturally on their tongues.
It takes a long time for all 19 students to share words. I keep expecting the class to get restless, but they stay focused, listening in a sort of reverent silence.
I’ve been thinking about that silence ever since. That’s just not an everyday mood in a junior high classroom. What made that assignment so different?
I had asked my students to teach me something very personal about their learning, and about their lives. It was something that allowed us to step into each other’s experience. Together, we were naming the silence between us—now we could both say the word in our home language.
Really, poetry is a similar act. As poets, we learn to listen for moments in life for which we don’t yet have language. When we find these unnamed spaces, we translate them for others. It’s not always a perfect translation, but in the act of naming what was a silence, we are drawn together.
- Guest Blogger, Christina Lee (Read her poetry in Relief 7.2. Purchase here.)
Photo by Mikko Lagerstedt
When we first arrived, before we entered the silence, we did Lectio Divina together. The words from 1 Peter 3:15 struck me: "In your hearts, set apart Christ as Lord." As we reread and listened to the passage, I kept hearing the phrase, "Christ as Lord." During the third cycle, which asks us to respond to what God is speaking, I prayed, "Christ, be Lord." The prayer moved me toward surrender, and centered me.
Despite that prayer, it took me a long time to be silent inside. The first night, my brain was spinning, my thoughts louder than the silence around me. I spent several hours wandering around the dark, yelling at God. Hope felt as far away as the quiet stars. Eventually I walked inside the dimly lit cathedral, the flap of my sandals reverberating in the emptiness.
I knelt down near the suspended crucifix and began to cry. After hours of wrestling with God, in a moment, the pain behind my anger dissolved into tears. I had the distinct impression that Christ was grieving with me, that I was not alone. I didn't find answers, but I knew God was there. The tears were not only a cathartic release; they became a symbol of surrender.
Silence is a type of surrender. It's a letting go of the incessant spinning within—the worry about what's next, about what I'm not doing, about the people I love, about the people who drive me crazy. Silence requires me to stop whining at God. This is the necessary cessation if one is to inhabit silence fully.
By morning, I felt as if I had accessed a river of peace. I walked around St. Meinrad not so much thinking as being. When people came to mind, I prayed for them, but the prayer felt more like a gentle lifting of them to the Lord than a cognitive exercise. Put in different terms, I felt as if I had accessed the subconscious. A great space broke open in me.
Richard Foster says before we can speak or write, we must be silent. We need to be still so we can hear what God is saying to us. Otherwise our words come from a place of noise. I have experienced the truth of this paradox at different points in my spiritual journey as well as in my writing life.
I am a writer. Last year at this time, I could barely choke out those words. It felt audacious, yet I couldn't deny the primal pull words had for me, calling me like the shore calls the sea. I had to respond. A central theme of this past year has been exploring and embracing that identity. I've asked myself, what does it mean to be a writer? A writer of faith? What do I have to say? Why should anyone listen? Does it even matter?
Silence is helping me keep the work I've been called to in perspective. At best, I don't enter silence with an agenda, to have an experience I can write about later. That may happen, but it isn't why I'm silent. I pursue stillness because God has called me to stillness (Psalm 46:10). Stillness not only helps me connect to God, it helps me connect to this work of writing.
Writing well feels like surrender. I open myself to another place where words flow like water. When I stop striving and am still, sitting in God's presence, I leave space for Him to be God. The same, I'm learning, is true with writing. When I write from a place of rigidity and noise, my words feel stiff, contrived, narrow. When I sit with the white page and let go of my preconceived notions of what's supposed to happen, it works—some of the time, anyway.
Yet stillness isn't a formula that gets me something. Instead it allows me to connect more deeply to myself, to God, and to my work. Some days it feels far away. But the retreat taught me that the river of stillness is closer than I think. I just have to slow down enough to enter it.
Guest blogger Diana Meakem is a senior English creative writing major at Taylor University in Upland, IN. A native of North Carolina, she’s an Ockenga Honors Scholar, member of Sigma Tau Delta, the International English Honors Society, and was the 2014 Editor-in Chief of Parnassus, Taylor’s literary magazine. She has accepted a fellowship at the University of Maine, where she will begin work on her MA in the fall.
(Photo by Hiroshi Sugimoto)