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Posted August 28, 2007

The Silence of Life

By Ron Rolheiser

Also see below Rolheiser’s reflection, reflection by Gene Hemrick

Meister Eckhard once suggested that nothing so much resembles the language of God as does silence.

That challenges us on many levels: What language will we speak in heaven? We don’t know, but if, as scripture tells us, heaven will be where we know and are known perfectly, love and are loved perfectly, and understand and are understood perfectly, I suspect that words will be superfluous. We will speak the language of silence.

So it is wise that, already now, we begin more and more to learn the language of silence, not just for later on, after death, but especially so that already in this life we can begin more to connect ourselves to our deepest roots.

Raimon Panikkar, in a recent book, The Experience of God, makes a distinction between what he calls "the silence of life" and "a life of silence". They aren’t the same thing. His words, while not always easy to grasp, are deeply insightful and worthy of meditation, so I quote him at length:

"The silence of life is not necessarily identical with a life of silence, like the silent life of desert monks. The life of silence is important to realize our objectives, to plan our actions or develop our relations, but it is not the same as the silence of life. The silence of life is the art of making silent the activities of life that are not life itself in order to reach the pure experience of life itself.

We frequently identify life itself with the activities of life. We identify our being with our feelings, our desires, our will, with everything that we do and everything that we have. We instrumentalize our life while forgetting that it is an end in itself. Plunged into the activities of life, we lose the faculty of listening, and we alienate ourselves from our very source: silence, God.

Silence appears at the moment when we position ourselves at the very source of being."

He goes on to suggest that our striving to attain the silence of life should not take away from the importance of our everyday activities - eating, working, socializing, healthy recreation. But there must be times when we also practice a healthy life of silence, when our bodies, hearts, and minds must be stilled enough so that, somehow, we can sense what lies beyond our activities and is the source of them, life itself, God.

How do we get there? That is exactly what every spirituality worthy of the name is trying to teach us. While there are many differences in the roads they suggest, there are a number of things upon which they all agree:

First, all the great traditions of prayer tell us that the road is simple, but not easy!

Next, each, in its own way, tells us what Jesus told us, namely, that the road that takes us to genuine depth, to an experience of God, is not so much dependent upon any particular prayer practice, but upon "purity of heart" (Matthew 5, 5), that is, upon a certain moral condition, an unselfishness, that takes us beyond the tyranny and idolatry of the ego.

And, how do we do that?

Every spirituality has it own route, but, again, they all agree on a number of non-negotiable elements:

Any journey that takes you towards God will demand, at a point, some vigorous asceticism, some real fasting, a real purification and a disciplined ordering of the countless, obsessive feelings and desires that act through us. We must break what some spiritual masters call "the tyranny of the ego" and Panikkar calls "the idolatry of the ego". We will not get in touch with the deep source of our lives if the activities of our life are so consuming and obsessive that we can never find an identity and meaning in something beyond them. That is the ultimate reason behind asceticism and fasting of all kinds, we renounce something, even if it is good, in function of getting in touch with its deeper source, life itself, God.

And this asceticism, through which we are trying to come to the silence of life will require too, at some point, a life of silence, a deliberate, disciplined effort (not to stop thinking and feeling since this is impossible) but to put ourselves in touch with what is beyond our thoughts and feelings at their origins. A Hindu text tells us that God is found in "nourishment", in what is seen, heard, and understood, but adds immediately that we only experience our activities as bearing God if we also, at times, deliberately halt those activities and go into silence so that we can see what’s behind them

The practices of meditation and contemplation, no matter what particular technique we use, have this precisely as their aim, namely, to practice a little bit "a life of silence" so as to sit for awhile in "the silence of life."

Nothing so much approximates the language of God as does silence. It’s a language we need to practice.

Silence: Taken from The Promise of Virtue

by Eugene Hemrick

Silence comes from the Latin word, silens, meaning to be still, quiet, or at rest. Other words related to it are: calm, peace, serenity, tranquility, poise, composure, noiselessness, hush, and solitude. I his description of stillness, Romano Guardini cuts to its very essence: “Stillness is the tranquility of the inner life; the quiet at the depths of its hidden streams. It is a collected, total presence, a being ‘all there,’ receptive, alert, ready . . . It is when the soul abandons the restlessness of purposeful activity.”

Within this definition we learn silence’s first fundamental lesson: It is not so much a lack of sound as it is a cultivation of interior stillness.

When we closely examine one of silence’s synonyms, calmness, we get a better idea of why our present age yearns to cultivate it. In Greek, the word calm is karein, meaning “the heat of the day.” It signifies a resting place at high noon, a spot preferable placid, peaceful, and cool. Silence is pictured as a shelter protecting us against that which beats on our senses and breaks us down.

. . . . Let’s look at the beauty of silence. As with the rotation of a diamond, the more we rotate silence, the more we realize the many ways it can bring new light into our lives.

When we reflect on how many times we have seen a child totally engrossed in drawing, we get our first beautiful picture of silence. In this scene, silence is total absorption in something. There is a singular focus that steadies a person’s being and locks out distractions.

Here silence would say, “Picture the times you were engrossed in a novel you were reading, or a hobby you enjoyed. Do you remember how you were transported into another world? This is one of the centering powers you inherit when you practice me.

Two persons in love, blissfully gazing at each other, portray another profound quality of silence. In this form, it translates into contemplation, which enables two persons to enjoy an I-thou relationship with each other. It fosters intimate contact in which the whole being of one person absorbs the being of the other.

Here silence whispers to us, “Note how time stands still between two persons when they become still, contemplate each other, and truly experience the other. Note especially the way ecstasy and I go together.”

Some years ago while competing in a triathlon I learned how silence and physical strength complement each other under trying circumstances.

The first and most frightening event in a triathlon is a mile swim. It is a nerve-racking event in which you race with about fifty other swimmers who are constantly bumping into you or swimming over you in deep waters.

What made this particular triathlon especially scary was the roughness of the water. One minute I would see a group of swimmers, and the next they were lost to sight in high swells.

During our swim, a number of swimmers panicked and began calling for help to the lifeguards. I remember panic hitting me and how it began to unnerve me. I began to think that this is why a person can drown in a matter of minutes.

For some unknown reason I was able to go within myself and to talk to myself. Repeatedly I reminded myself, “Relax, relax, don’t fight the water but go with it.”

Suddenly an inner stillness came over me, and I began cutting through the water with new energy. Later when I reflected on those moments I realized the power stillness has in restoring our nerves and, consequently, our physical strength.

In cases like this, silence says, “Observe how the inner strength I generate is the real strength behind human strength. I am responsible for gathering together those inner powers that can help you overcome much. When you feel weakened and afraid, go off with me and allow me to restore the spirit within your strength.”

In Psalm 131 we read, “But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.”

Silence in this psalm is portrayed as the inner peace and security of a child without a care in the world.