The Uncertainty of Silence

(This will be among the many essays featured in the forthcoming book Notes on Silence that I’m co-authoring with Patrick Shen which can be purchased here.)

“…I want to be with those who know secret things
or else alone…” 
Rainer Maria Rilke

I was around 8 years old when I began to have reoccurring dreams about death. With a rush of adrenaline, shocked and relieved to be alive, I’d wake up only remembering I was dead and floating in a white sky-scape of silence. I was alone, lost, and stagnant in limitless space and eternal time. This dream doesn’t sound grim to me anymore, but at 8 this nothingness had me sprinting to my parent’s bed. These dreams created in me a reverence for mystery and a deep longing to know the unknowable, to hold the ungraspable, and to forever chase what can never be met. 

We live in a world that loves to know. We like to intellectualize things, name people, describe experiences, and we covet our ability to share tangible evidence of these ungraspable things. Metaphors, on the other hand, hold meaning for the nameless. Metaphors help us to make sense of the unknowable things. We spend our lives clothing the many mysteries we encounter with metaphors which may not otherwise have any meaning. 

Defining is an interesting tool. It can be both harmful and helpful. We often use names to remain in control. We control our environment by regulating it, containing it, qualifying it. Most often names are used to define in order to make the definer feel more comfortable. Having a sense of knowing or grasping more creates comfort, and comfort makes us feel in control. Yet, I can’t help but contend that a controlled experience always takes us away from a mystical encounter. Holding creates an impossibility of beholding. And as a monk once told me, “Naming the nameless can leave all unrecognizable.”

Naming an encounter by way of our senses implies an unattainable certitude when really the elusive nature of mystery befalls all of our understanding. Silence is unnameable. To say something is or isn’t, to say something has a name or doesn’t, implies a dualistic nature. And in our desperate nature to cling, we are left time and time again barefaced before the mystery silence is. Only when we rid ourselves of this dualistic nature, we begin to see mystery for what it sincerely is. We begin to touch the bottomless depths of something hosting imponderable facets. 

 While working on In Pursuit of Silence, the topic of silence as a spiritual or religious practice came up on a regular basis. Silence is not necessarily spiritual or religious, and yet for some it may be entirely spiritual or religious. Silence is not a stranger to being likened to God in some fashion, yet similarly silence’s markings have been precisely that not of God, at least by concept. Silence holds the tension of absence and presence. Silence lives and breathes in the paradox of mysteries. Silence is infinite in its magnitude while remaining invariably naught. Silence is fully here and fully there, as much as it is nowhere and everywhere. But to create silence into being solely dualistic is to strip silence of its infinite possibility.  

Maggie Ross has named silence as salvation. Others, like Saint John of the Cross, have marred it with a place of darkness and despair. And yet, these implications don’t diminish the capacity of the thinker to associate such an absence, or presence, with silence as it relates to God or otherwise. And, this is the beauty of silence: it finds its way of understanding into each individual mind. 

“One might say I had decided to marry the silence of the forest. The sweet dark warmth of the whole world will have to be my wife…So perhaps I have an obligation to preserve the stillness, the silence, the poverty, the virginal point of pure nothingness which is at the center of all other loves.” Thomas Merton, Day of a Stranger 

For me, silence has been a place where I find the divine and I find myself. While my wariness of silence has been potent since my first meeting, I realize this is because of the depths of the unknown to which She has taken me. 

Silence is where I meet myself and my fellow human. 

Silence is where I see my darkest corners and my hidden faults. 

Silence is where I meet God. 

Silence is where I can grow and evolve. 

Silence is where I bathe in wonder.

Silence is where I listen. 

I often consider those reoccurring dreams first leading me to a lifelong love affair with the forever unrevealed. I consider the terrified 8 year old worrying her way through life, reaching for something always withheld. To be honest, not much has changed. My worry is now anxiety. My reaching is now a longing. Only now, I sit drenched in wonder as I tirelessly stretch out my arms towards the unknown. Now, I smile in awe as I untiringly attempt to package the mystery in language. 

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Here ends the book, but not the searching. The end of Thomas Merton’s “The Seven Storey Mountain”

 

 

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Published by Cassidy Hall

Cassidy Hall (MA, MDiv, MTS) is an author, filmmaker, podcaster, and holds a Masters of Divinity, Masters of Theological Studies, and Masters in Counseling. Born and raised in Iowa, she now works at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Indianapolis where she is pursuing ordination in the UCC. Throughout her time at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, she worked as a Teaching Assistant while studying for her MDiv and MTS degrees (December, 2021). During her time at seminary, she also served as the Secretary of the International Thomas Merton Society and continues to serve on the board of Enfleshed. Cassidy co-authored Notes on Silence (2018) and has had her work featured in devotionals including most recently: Thirsty, and You Gave Me Drink; Homilies and Reflections for Cycle C, from Clear Faith Publishing (2021). Her essays have been published in the Christian Century, The National Catholic Reporter, Convivium Journal, The Thomas Merton Seasonal, The Thomas Merton Annual, and she has also been a contributor for The Huffington Post and Patheos. Before pursuing her MDiv and MTS in Indianapolis, Cassidy lived in Los Angeles where she worked on the production team of the documentary feature film, In Pursuit of Silence. The film’s success on the festival circuit and beyond led to its worldwide theatrical release. Her directorial debut short-film, Day of a Stranger, paints an intimate portrait of Thomas Merton’s hermitage years and received the Audience Choice Award from Illuminate Film Festival.   She is the co-host of the Encountering Silence podcast, which explores the ambiguity of silence in our modern-day lives. And more recently, she created a podcast hosted by the Christian Century titled Contemplating Now, which examines the intersection of contemplation and social justice.

One thought on “The Uncertainty of Silence

  1. Thanks, Cassidy, for this. For naming Silence as feminine (Hagia Sophia?), and for teasing out how the experience can be simultaneously terrifying and life giving.

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