Academic journal article Cithara

The Country beyond Words: Silence and Christian Mindfulness

Academic journal article Cithara

The Country beyond Words: Silence and Christian Mindfulness

Article excerpt

"Teach me to go to the country beyond words and beyond names." -Thomas Merton1

From the eerie quiet of isolated spaces to the reverent hush of empty churches, I have long been attracted to silence. For decades I have pondered its role in contemplative prayer and in poetry, painting, and even music. This essay is a highly condensed report of what I have discovered in "the country beyond words," to borrow a phrase from my chief guide, the monk and writer Thomas Merton. He and many others have opened up a vast, mysterious country that is as real and immediate as gravity, and just as elusive.

The vast country of silence has its own travel writers. Professionals in the fields of religion and poetry have described some of its leading features and its effect on those who take up residence there. In a sense, monks, nuns, and hermits applied for citizenship in the country of silence on the day they entered their monasteries or hermitages. Since they have left behind so many valuable guideposts, I will include a number of their observations in my own description.

Silence, like gravity, affects us all, wherever we may be, and we can surrender to it if we understand its benefits.

What, first of all, do we mean by silence? According to the dictionary, "silence is the absence of sound or noise," but that is only part of the story. Ordinary silence can be the hostile refusal to talk or the stunned inability to do so, as when I ask my students for a response but no one in the class is brave enough to speak.

Genuine silence can never be uncomfortable since it is not about emptiness, repression, or negativity. It is not about a lack of anything; rather it is about something positive. Genuine silence has its own independent existence. It indicates presence, not absence. It is the enduring or surrounding reality that sound interrupts. Or it is the permanent reality that supports sound, just as the white space on a page supports the words. Jewish mysticism recognizes this so clearly that it describes the Torah as "black fire on white fire" (Kaplan 92).

Perhaps this is related to Mozart's idea that true music is the silence between the notes, what T. S. Eliot (in "Burnt Norton") calls "the unheard music" (Eliot 190). They are telling us that music is not the mere arrangement of notes. The Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast observes in The Music of Silence that music "derives its life from the matrix of silence out of which it arises and into which it flows" (121). Similarly, words come out of silence.

Silence is an inescapable part of sound and of language but not just as a binary opposite; the way up is the opposite of down. If we listen to the wordless spaces between our thoughts, and if we practice extending these spaces, we can find a deep silence that is more spiritual than physical. That kind of silence opens the soul. Often, when two lovers are together for a long time, there is not much need for words. This point is made by St. Teresa of Avila (in "God and the Soul"), who quotes Francisco de Osuna: "The greater our love, the fewer words we use" (Bielecki 156-57).

The silence worth exploring, then, is not dead silence, the awkward or alarming emptiness that can cause anxiety. Genuine, inner silence can alleviate anxiety since it is a well-spring of meaning, a type of prayer, a source of peace. This inner silence occurs when the interior clamor of ideas, voices, and memories stops so the spirit can breathe.

We can be in the quietest place in the world, but if our minds are noisy, we might as well be standing next to a loud speaker. Buddhists call this the "monkey mind."Although the emphasis on mindfulness is usually associated with Eastern spirituality, its application to Christian meditative practice is what I call Christian mindfulness.2

The Jesuit scholar Walter Ong writes in The Presence of the Word: "We can meet God in words, but since words do not last but silence does, a real encounter with God is an encounter with silence. …

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