We move and live in noise of one sort or another. There is a perpetual hum to modern life. Even movies and television dramas seem always to have some kind of (to me) irritating music underneath the dialogue. People walk and run and exercise with electronic speakers stuck into their ears. Many work and even pray with some kind of music or other programming playing in the background. We seem to shun silence; we fear entering into the silence. What possible good could come from silence?
And yet the Book of Wisdom proclaims:
For while gentle silence enveloped all things and night in its swift course was now half gone, your all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne. . . .
How clear and sweet are those words to anyone intent on listening for more than words or music, one listening for the silent Word of God: it is in silence and darkness that we hear what is speaking in the heart’s core, in the depths of the soul. The Word of God leaps from his heavenly throne to the throne of our open, silent self, a self silent not only from external noise, but from the noise of its own preoccupations and worries. To become silent, we must surrender the noise of our own inner voices. We must learn to quiet our own hearts and minds.
How, then, does this happen? Thomas Krampf, a poet friend of mine, once wrote in a private letter, “I have to grab at these moments of quietude when I can. Or, to avoid being greedy, at least try to let them identify themselves.” Yes, I said to myself, that is it. That is the work of entering into silence: the simple daily trying to seize upon the quietude that is there for us and letting it identify itself. We don’t know what will transpire. It may not be a realization that God’s Word is making itself known to us; it may simply be an awareness of how healing, how soothing silence can be. We let it identify itself and our whole being begins to slow down and expand, and we let go and let the silence itself do its work. Whatever happens there in the deep heart’s core will bring us peace. As William Butler Yeats says so beautifully in his poem, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,”
“And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow. . . .
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.”
And why is it that we find peace in our deep heart’s core? It is because that is where peace finds us. We don’t find her; she finds us, and her name is Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom. Thomas Merton defines her beautifully in a prose poem, “Hagia Sophia,” that appears in his book, Emblems of a Season of Fury.
There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity,
a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden
wholeness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity
is Wisdom, the Mother of all, Natura naturans.
There is in all things an inexhaustible sweetness
and purity, a silence that is a fount of action and
joy. It rises up in wordless gentleness and flows
out to me from the unseen roots of all created
being, welcoming me tenderly, saluting me with
indescribable humility. This is at once my own
being, my own nature, and the Gift of my Creator’s
Thought and Art within me, speaking as Hagia
Sophia, speaking as my sister, Wisdom.
And she will find us, she will speak to us provided we do the work of making the decision to seize upon moments of quietude in one’s day. But that often involves a deliberate choice to find quietude where we think there is none. Where do we have to go, what do we have to do to find that silence? It can be anywhere once we have begun the practice of shutting out inner and outer noise, but at the beginning we may very well have to move to a place of solitude, somewhere apart from the work that usually preoccupies us. It may be in the very office where we work or the home we live in when we close the door, turn off our phones and computers, dim the lights and sit or lie down until we begin to breathe deeply, becoming as still as we can. It need not be long, only as much time as we need to let the silence identify itself.
It is in such daily practice and such quietude that God finds us and “speaks” as Hagia Sophia whose word may be silence itself, which is telling us that this silence is good, it is what we need, it is how we slow our racing, restless hearts.
This is what Saint Francis knew, what he learned from a lifetime of taking time from the roads he walked to seek out places of solitude where he could enter the silence within, the place inside where he could hear the God who was seeking him out, trying to get him to hear how full is the voice of silence, how clear is the feminine voice of the God of silence, Hagia Sophia, the Mother of all.
Brother Thomas of Celano, in his First Life of St. Francis, writes this:
The Blessed and Venerable Father Francis wanted only to be taken up with God and to purify his spirit of the dust of the world which eventually clings to us in our daily association with others. So he would periodically withdraw to a place of solitude and silence. . . . He would take with him a very few companions from among those more intimately associated with his inner life, so that they might keep people from visiting or disturbing him, and might lovingly and faithfully keep guard over his quiet.
It may seem strange to some that St. Francis would need someone else to guard his silence, and yet isn’t that what all of us need in one way or another when we need peace and quiet? The very effort we have to make to keep others at bay when we’re trying to pray is itself a kind of noise. It forces us to check our watches to see if it’s time yet to respond to whatever it is that is demanding our attention. And time itself then becomes a source of anxiety, time which is itself one of the loudest interior noises; for silence is a place to lose time. When someone else, then, is taking care of watching over time, he or she is watching over our silence. What wisdom Francis had in making fraternity itself the guard of one’s quietude. And what wisdom he had in writing a Document on Solitude for his brothers in which he put into writing how the brothers were to guard each other’s solitude. He writes:
Those who wish to be in a religious manner in solitude should be three or four brothers at most; two them should be mothers and have two sons or at least one.
Those two, who are the mothers, should maintain the life of Martha, and the two sons maintain the life of Mary and have one enclosure in which each one would have his cell, in which he could pray and sleep.
Those brothers, who are the mothers, should be zealous to remain apart from every person; and through obedience to their ministers they should guard their sons from every person, so that no one would be able to speak with them.
And those sons should not speak with any person except with their mothers and with their minister and custodian, when it suits him to visit them with the blessing of the Lord God.
But the sons at some time should take on the duty of the mothers, alternating as it seems proper to them to arrange for an appointed time. . . .
I am sure Francis himself took his turn in watching over the silence and solitude of those brothers who were in prayer. He knew that they needed to lose time, in the sense of letting go of time, letting go of the need to possess time, to make every movement of time count. To be in deep prayer is to be, in a sense, outside of time, to have no awareness that time is passing. All is now, this timeless, spaceless dimension. It is to be in God whom St. Bonaventure and others, from Empedocles to Voltaire, described as a circle “whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”
It is our preoccupation with time that circumscribes, puts a circumference around God, so that the biggest obstacle to entering into silence is chronological time and the ego’s need to control it. Granted there are time demands that are the results of our commitments and responsibilities in life, but we can easily exaggerate the amount of time we have to give to them. We can’t relax and take a break and not respond immediately to the demands upon our time. And this is even further exaggerated by the internet and cell phones and the false demands they put upon us to answer immediately and to be perpetually in contact with everyone who contacts us as soon as that person’s message pops up on our phone or computer screen. Immediate response trumps taking time for ourselves and detaching from immediacy to enter silence and solitude and listen to that other voice that is more important than any human word. As Max Picard says in his book, The World of Silence, “The great poet does not completely fill out the space of his theme with his words. He leaves a space clear, into which another and higher poet can speak.”
This is wisdom, not only about the great poet, but about each one of us. We all need to leave “a space clear, into which another and higher poet can speak.” That “space clear” is silence, quietude; and anyone can, with practice, enter that space where we can be open to the sound of silence. It is arrived at through the discipline of self-forgetfulness and simply being in the presence of silence. For myself, I distinguish between simply being in the presence of the silence that is God and letting God love me. The latter I call contemplation. And the other way is to concentrate on something with self-forgetfulness and let it speak to me in silence. This I call meditation. It is akin to experiencing art. As the poet Elizabeth Bishop once said, “What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.” I try to go to an art museum once a week if I can and simply forget myself in perfectly useless concentration. That, too, is silence, even with others around whom I tune out in my absorption in whatever painting or bronze I’m looking at.
I think this latter kind of prayer of silence, this meditation, is what St. Francis was doing when he prayed before the San Damiano Crucifix. He “lost himself” in looking at Christ on the cross. He may have prayed aloud at the beginning of his prayer, but eventually he was all silence before the mystery of the love of Christ suspended in a space whose center was that cross in San Damiano and whose circumference was nowhere.
When I visit the places of solitude of St. Francis, I’m always struck by the silence that would be there were I not there bringing my own noise with me. Or if I am with a group, the noise is louder as we converse about what this place means, what happened here, etc. But if we spend any time at all in silence, the place itself begins to speak seemingly to everyone. What the place is can only be heard in silence. And usually the places St. Francis chose are far removed from the hustle and bustle of the world of daily life. Even the Carceri, the caves above the city of Assisi where Francis and the brothers prayed, are so far above the city and its noise, that with no one there, it is silent and invites you to move into the silence. I lived once for three days with the friars at the Carceri, and it just happened that the whole time I was there, we were in a huge cloud that covered the mountain. And what I remember is the almost absolute silence when I went into my cell or walked outside what little way I could in that blessed cloud.
What I am saying here about blessed silence is not easy for us today. We almost define ourselves by the noise we make and surround ourselves with. I am how I sound. And how hard a discipline it is to let go of the noise our lives make. Nor would anyone want to let go of that defining sound of the self unless there were a deeper, more defining dimension that we believe is the source of who we really are, the fulfillment of what we really desire. And relatively few are drawn to that way which seems counter to what our whole culture has become. As Jesus says, “For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
I believe that learning to become silent and to be comfortable with silence is the way through that narrow gate that leads to life. And St. Francis throughout his life showed by the rhythm of his life that he had found the way of silence. He spends most of his life after his conversion looking for and living in places of silence and solitude. He wrote a Document on Solitude for those of his brothers who choose to live in places of solitude. He guarded his own solitude and asked his brothers to respect his solitude and silence when he was in prayer. And it was in one of these places of solitude, the mountain of La Verna, that he was graced with one of the most extraordinary mystical experiences of the Middle Ages, the sacred stigmata, the manifestation on his own body of the wounds of Christ. He had carried the wounds of Christ within him for years, and it was only in the silence of La Verna that they emerged from within and manifested themselves in response to a vision of the Crucified Christ as a Seraphic angel with the body of the Son of Man.
No one, not even St. Francis, expects such a profound vision in silence, but everyone who learns to pray and listen in silence eventually experiences some kind of transformation, some kind of peace that surpasses human understanding. It will emerge from the deep spaceless stillness within us whose center is God.
In the Franciscan tradition, however, contemplation and meditation are not ends in themselves, as far as our daily lives are concerned. There is always a rhythm of contemplation, meditation, and action, the action, however, not meaning busyness and/or do-goodism, but action as the will acting outside its preoccupation with the self: the will as self-determination for love, for relationship, as Blessed John Duns Scotus would have it.
This rhythm or dialectic is best expressed for me in a quote from the poet, Robert Lax, who said,
It is very good and sweet to be always occupied with God only, and sit simply in His presence and shut up, and be healed by the mere fact that God likes to be in your soul, because you like Him to be there. And in doing this you also love your neighbor as much as you could by any action of your own: because God cannot be in your soul without that fact having an effect on other people, and not necessarily people who have ever heard of you.
In contemplation, whether we realize it or not, God acts in and through us for the building up of the Body of Christ. It is not as if we say to ourselves, “Okay, now I’ve prayed and entered into God within me, now what can I do to make the world better, or to love my neighbor.” The action of prayer flows into the action that is charity. In fact, the action of prayer is already an act of charity. Or the action of prayer may flow out of us as the action that is simply suffering, suffering which may, sometimes, be the only thing we can do. As T.S. Eliot says in Murder in the Cathedral, “action is suffering and suffering is action. But whatever the action is, it flows naturally out of who we have become because the source of everything in our lives is our ongoing encounter with the silent God within.”
Prayer, like the eternal inter-relating of the Blessed Trinity itself, is also acting “ad extra,” outside its own inner interrelating. And that action of the Trinity “ad extra” is Jesus Christ, the Incarnation of that inner Trinitarian interrelating. In deep prayer we enter the Trinity, the God within, and in so doing we enter into an ongoing action “ad extra” that becomes the charity, the love, we become when we live our lives in prayer. And the model for what that love looks like is Jesus Christ Himself who is, as Lax expresses it, the effect we have on other people. Christ acts in and through us when we become, as He was, the Incarnation of the inner life of the dialogue which is prayer in our case, which is Trinitarian life in God’s case.
Prayer and life, meditation, contemplation and action, are the dimension of the Franciscan presence in the world. It flows out of and into silence that is rooted in the solitude of prayer. But unlike God, the circumference of the Franciscan presence is not nowhere; it is and includes the boundaries of poverty. It expands and encircles the boundaries of love to include those who have been excluded from the selfish circumference of an unenlightened society. It embraces the symbolic lepers of our lives, as St. Francis embraced the actual lepers on the plain below Assisi and about which he wrote in his Testament, “For I, being in sin, thought it bitter to look at lepers, and the Lord himself led me among them, and I worked mercy with them. And when I left their company, I realized that what had seemed bitter to me, had been turned into sweetness of soul and body.”
Only a person given wholly to prayer, as St. Francis was, could possibly hear God say that God dwells among the lepers; and if you really want to enter into the center of who I, your God, am, you have to go that far out of yourself. To enter in is to move out of yourself. Entering in and moving out are complementary dimensions of prayer. God-centering is Other-centering that in turn becomes all those others who meet us when we leave the silence within where God speaks to us and tells us that He is not only within but without. And the God who is within will show us the way from silence to love moving naturally out of the transformed self. We become our prayer. As Thomas of Celano said of St. Francis, “He was not then so much a man who prayed, as a man who had become a living prayer.” Who he was outside is what St. Francis was inside: one who worked mercy with the lepers, as does the God of silence.
In this poem, imagining the silent woman caught in adultery, I try to encapsulate in a visual image the God of silence made flesh, the God of silence having become Jesus Christ.
Could God be silence, after all
After all the words, rituals
After the hymns and processions
After tears and lamentations,
Could silence be the answer?
Silence loud with divinity
No words, no thoughts, no images
Could silence be the God of prayer?
As when, silent, he wrote in sand
And she – smelling his feet – heard?
I cannot comment on this poem because a poem is a poem is a poem. It has its own reasons and language for saying things the way it does. It is itself a sort of silence broken only when its own words are spoken aloud. The poem, like silence itself, can only be heard when we ourselves are silent enough to hear it within. The poem itself is an image of the inner silence we need to enter in order to hear that other Poem which is the Word of God.
Such silence is hard to come by and needs both practice and guarding over, as Saint Francis so deftly provided for in his Document on Solitude. Such silence is an ongoing endeavor to find what has to be entered into regularly and with perseverance. But it is also rewarding, with surprises of seeing and hearing, as I have tried to render in this poem whose words, as the poem suggests, are ironically, themselves a kind of noise:
Searching for Silence
It’s the time of day, say
4 PM or so, not quite
end of day or evening
Everything is silent but
for the far noise of traffic.
No birds no animal cry
And if you were to shut out
traffic you could feel silence
in the red bougainvillea
Earlier it was full of
birdsong, cardinals’ mainly
red and gray on red and gray
male and female, bloom and branch
throat-plucked wind-bowed singing
that the silence almost hears
Without the traffic, silence
itself would sound red birdsong
as gray limbs bend to soft wind
until mowers’ motors jar –
Even quiet grass invites
the noise of human meddling
These very words may disturb
what’s best left in silence felt
in wordless, useless seeing
“The rest,” as Shakespeare says at the end of Hamlet, “is silence.”