(This is Neil)
For Christmas, I wanted to briefly comment on a pastoral letter by the Bishop of Aberdeen, Hugh Gilbert, OSB, on silence (ht: Fr. Z). “We live in a noisy world,” the Bishop begins. Christmas is no exception – he speaks of the “noise, rush and rowdiness of contemporary Christmasses.”
But he wisely notes that “there are bad kinds of silence,” which is very important to say after the terrible “silencing” caused by clerical abuse – “Gentleman, I wanted so desperately to be heard,” one survivor told the USCCB. The Bishop also writes, “We all understand about babies.” And he has no desire for us to “come and go from church as cold isolated individuals.”
So, it must be asked, why is silence so important? Partially, silence is important for a bishop for similar reasons that it is so important for the conductor of an orchestra or an athlete about to begin a complex dive. The audience can’t properly encounter a symphony in the midst of chatter or if they themselves are distracted by random thoughts. So, likewise, the Bishop suggests that “we need a quiet mind to connect to the great Eucharistic Prayer.” And a diver can’t still her anxieties, and maintain an extraordinarily high degree of attentiveness to and control of her muscle groups, with sudden noises and the disturbing flashes of cameras. Likewise, the bishop quotes an elderly priest from the diocese, “Two people talking stop forty people praying.” At the very least, silence is a “courtesy towards those who want to pray,” an activity that might be a bit more like diving than we tend to think.
But there is something else. The Bishop talk about silence as a form of “reverence.” He also speaks of silence as not merely necessary to hear God, but as a way giving God the “first word.” “Only then will our own words really be words, echoes of God’s, and not just more litter on the rubbish dump of noise.” I don’t imagine speaking this way at a musical or athletic performance, even if there is a “presence” in any real work of art.
This sort of silence is necessary as a reminder of the distinction between the power of God and human achievement. For example, the exegete Susan Miller speaks of the silence of the women in the Gospel of Mark at Jesus’ tomb, “The silence of the women is reminiscent of the primeval silence at the beginning of creation before God speaks and separates creation from chaos. … After the death of the Messiah there is silence before the new creation.” Human beings cannot raise Jesus, and death is not the prior reality for anything at all. We can only wait in silence for God’s intervention.
As the Ecumenical Patriarch said in a lecture at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in 2008:
The ascetic silence of apophaticism imposes on all of us … a sense of humility before the awesome mystery of God, before the sacred personhood of human beings, and before the beauty of creation. It reminds us that — above and beyond anything that we may strive to appreciate and articulate — the final word always belongs not to us but to God. This is more than simply a reflection of our limited and broken nature. It is, primarily, a calling to gratitude before Him who “so loved the world” (Jn 3:16) and who promised never to abandon us without the comfort of the Paraclete that alone “guides us to the fullness of truth.”
It is this “ascetic silence” before the “awesome mystery” of God that is the most important kind of silence. The writer Suzanne Guthrie once discussed taking a deeply moving class on negative theology alongside (male) resident seminarians. One of the seminarians asked their teacher, “This life of prayer you’re talking about? It’s fine for priests and religious – monks and nuns – but what about an ordinary housewife? How could a person like that live this life of prayer?” Guthrie froze. God had been present to her in “solitude, silence and loving darkness.” “I couldn’t breathe.” But the teacher responded by saying, “They cannot help it. Prayer is not something that you do. Prayer is something God does to you.”
So the silence that we need is “ascetic,” “apophatic” – a recognition of God’s “first word” and “final word.”
Here’s a question for the end of the year. I suspect that if you Google something like “liturgical minimalism,” you’ll quickly find your way to criticisms of the inattentive and indifferent. But what if “minimalism” means “ascetic silence” – a simplicity, even emptiness, that represents a waiting for God to have the “first” and “final” word? Perhaps a very good example would be William Schickel’s removal of decorative elements at the church, chapel, and courtyard at Gethesemani Abbey to emphasize “light, clarity and simplicity” (see here).
Merry Christmas to Todd and all our readers. The Bishop quotes the ancient carol: “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.”