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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Mepkin Abbey • Moncks Corner, SC

Mepkin Abbey is a very lush area in South Carolina. The beauty of the land was undeniable, before even knowing about the various gardens, dedicated grounds, and even labyrinth located on the monastic grounds. Unfortunately, I spent a short time at Mepkin, but still felt extraordinarily welcomed, loved, humbled, and honored to experience this monastery.

What I learned? That perhaps the ability to look at things more concisely may be a gift as opposed to a hindrance. Or maybe that viewing things less loosely and more blatantly: is this “coincidence or providence?” is this a “trip or a pilgrimage?” allows one to fully engage in a focal point in order to put their energies (or even lack thereof) towards something that is beyond themselves. It seems as though the less I understand things, the more potent they are to me. This, however, appears to accompany the daunting ability of letting go of my need for control in knowledge, knowing, decisions, etc.

I suppose part of me doesn’t want to declare such language because it seems to rein me in. But, what if it frees me to fully engage in that which I am meant to be, meant to explore, meant to do, meant to see? A friend of mine reminded me that perhaps freeing ourselves from the need of semantics (easier said than done) perhaps allows for letting go in an experience, ultimately allowing one to be more present and mindful.

I’ve found lately that having language for particular experiences has been helpful, however, some experiences require no language. What is it about the human experience that makes me think/assume I need to tie it to words? A word I’ve recently been introduced to is Acedia (according to my Apple dictionary: noun spiritual or mental sloth; apathy (which, to me, may minimize the word’s depth and affect)).  Coming from the mental health perspective, this word has been especially enlightening – a word that is far different from depression, but almost mockingly mimics it. It seems as though I have mistaken some bouts of depression in my life for the experience of acedia (which has also been referenced as the ‘noonday demon’*)

What is it in life that makes us (me especially) complicate things with words? For me, I have found words often necessary for human connection and interaction. Meanwhile, I have also found some of my most potent human connections to be in the midst of silence and knowing. Yet, I assume, how can I know without words being assigned to feelings or actions, or how can I feel without assigning words to knowing?

Another question that came up is the idea of  “do you access something by self limits?”

This seemingly radical thought may be of disgust to some, but it intrigued me. What if I am able to access more by self-limits, able to be more of who I am meant to be by self-limits, able to grow and learn and challenge myself in self-limits? There is certainly a lost art to self-control in our society these days (this includes myself). While we’re quite attune to those self-control motions that ‘appear’ and ‘show’ to others (i.e. working out, eating right, clothing), why aren’t we (or maybe I am just speaking for myself) more involved in those eternal aspects of our being regarding self-control? Why is it more important for one to say they meditated or prayed than their actual meditation or prayer experience? Why is it more important for one to say they gave a homeless person a piece of bread rather than to quietly experience the community with another brother or sister of humanity?

Clearly, my time at Mepkin was illuminating towards a more simple way of thinking and living. That honing ourselves in to words, ways of life, people, jobs, choices, directions, and feelings – may be more fulfilling and opening than depleting and closing.

*Evagrius’ (345-399 AD) depiction and description of acedia, the noonday demon:

“The demon of acedia—also called the noonday demon [Ps 90:6 LXX]—is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all. He presses his attack upon the monk about the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour. First of all he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he constrains the monk to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour, to look now this way and now that to see if perhaps [one of the brethren appears from his cell]. Then too he instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, a hatred for manual labor. He leads him to reflect that charity has departed from among the brethren, that there is no one to give encouragement. Should there be someone at this period who happens to offend him in some way or other, this too the demon uses to contribute further to his hatred. This demon drives him along to desire other sites where he can more easily procure life’s necessities, more readily find work and make a real success of himself. He goes on to suggest that, after all, it is not the place that is the basis of pleasing the Lord. God is to be adored everywhere. He joins to these reflections the memory of his dear ones and of his former way of life. He depicts life stretching out for a long period of time, and brings before the mind’s eye the toil of the ascetic struggle and, as the saying has it, leaves no leaf unturned to induce the monk to forsake his cell and drop out of the fight. No other demon follows close upon the heels of this one (when he is defeated) but only a state of deep peace and inexpressible joy arise out of this struggle.”

Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer, tr. John Eudes Bamberger, OCSO (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1981), pp. 18-9.

Some of Kathleen Norris’ Q&A on her book and the topic of acedia: