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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Need for Silence (Reading Notes)

One of the Lenten disciplines I tried to undertake was regular times of silence and meditation. As is
usually the case with me, my desire for silence was frequently overcome by my decidedly less virtuous desire for sleep as well as a misplaced understanding of my own busyness.

Statue of Christ in the garden at the Abbey of Gethsemani
Last week a little essay by Thomas Merton called "Creative Silence" (which he published in1968 in a wonderfully-named Catholic student newspaper at the University of Louisville called the Bloomin' Newman), and it rekindled my desire to cultivate silence more earnestly. I can't help but think lately that I have over the past few months - perhaps the past few years - been existing rather than living. By this I mean that I've been devoting my attention most fully to those things that are least connected to who I really am in relation to God and to others, and so have been existing superficially. Merton spoke very loudly to me on this point in his essay, and I thought I'd share large sections of it below:
A Christian can realize himself called by God to periods of silence, reflection, meditation, and 'listening.' We are perhaps too talkative, too activistic, in our conception of the Christian life. Our service of God and of of the Church does not consist only in talking and doing. It can also consist in periods of silence, listening, waiting. Perhaps it is very important, in our era of violence and unrest, to rediscover meditation, silent inner unitive prayer, and creative Christian silence.
Silence has many dimensions. It can be a regression and an escape, a loss of self, or it can be a presence, awareness, unification, self-discovery. Negative silence blurs and confuses our identity, and we lapse into daydreams or diffuse anxieties. Positive silence pulls us together and makes us realize who we are, who we might be, and the distance between these two. Hence, positive silence implies a disciplines choice, and what Paul Tillich called the 'courage to be.' In the long run, the discipline of creative silence demands a certain kind of faith. For when we come face to face with ourselves in the lonely ground of our own being, we confront many questions about the value of our existence, the reality of our commitments, the authenticity of our everyday lives.
When we are constantly in movement, always busy meeting the demands of our social role, passively carried along on the stream of talk in which people mill around from morning to night, we are perhaps able to escape from our deeper self and from the questions it poses. We can be more or less content with the external identity, the social self, which is produced by our interaction with others in the wheeling and dealing of everyday life. But no matter how honest and open we may be in our relations with others, this social self implies a necessary element of artifice. It is always to some extent a mask...[It is not] entirely pretense: it appeals to us. But do we ever give ourselves a chance to realize that this talkative, smiling, perhaps rough-and-ready personage that we seem to be is not necessarily our real self? Do we ever give ourselves a chance to recognize something deeper? Can we face the fact that we are perhaps not interested in all this talk and business? When we are quiet, not just for a few minutes, but for an hour or several hours, we may become uneasily aware of the presence within us of a disturbing stranger, the self that is both 'I' and someone else. The self that is not entirely welcome in his own house because he is so different from the everyday character that we have constructed our of our dealings with others - and our infidelities in ourselves...
 Now let us frankly face the fact that our culture is one which is geared in many ways to help us evade any need to face this inner, silent self. We live in a state of constant semiattention to the sound of voices, music, traffic, or the generalized noise of what goes on around us all the time. This keeps us immersed in a flood of racket and words, a diffuse medium in which our consciousness is half diluted: we are not quite 'thinking,' not fully present and not entirely absent; not fully withdrawn, yet not completely available. It cannot be said that we are really participating in anything and we may, in fact, be half conscious of our alienation and resentment...We just float along in the general noise...
Of course this is not enough to keep us completely forgetful of the other unwelcome self that remains so largely unconscious. The disquieting presence of our deep self keeps forcing its way almost to the surface of awareness. To exorcise this presence we need a more definite stimulation, a distraction, a drink, a drug, a gimmick, a game, a routine of acting out of our sense of alienation and trouble. Then it goes away for the time being and we forget who we are.
All of this can be described as 'noise,' as commotion and jamming which drown out the deep, secret, and insistent demands of the inner self.
With this inner self we have to come to terms in silence. That is the reason for choosing silence. In silence we face and admit the gap between the depths of our being, which we consistently ignore, and the surface which is untrue to our own reality. We recognize the need to be at home with ourselves in order that we may go out to meet others, not just with a mask of affability, but with real commitment and authentic love...
Just as we have a superficial, external mask which we put together with words and actions that do not fully represent all that is in us, so even believers deal with a God who is made up of words, reassuring slogans, and this is less the God of faith than the product of religious and social routine. Such a 'God' can become a substitute for the truth of the invisible God of faith, and though this comforting image may seem real to us, he is really a kind of idol. His chief function is to protect us against a deep encounter with our true inner self and with the true God.
Silence is therefore important even in the life of faith and in our deepest encounter with God. We cannot always be talking, praying in words, cajoling, reasoning, or keeping up a kind of devout background music. Much of our well-mean interior religious dialogue is, in fact, a smoke screen and an evasion. Much of it is simply self-reassurance and in the end it is little better than a form of self-justification. Instead of really meeting God in the nakedness of faith in which our inmost being is laid bare before him, we act out an inner ritual that has no function but to allay anxiety.
The purest faith has to be tested by silence in which we listen for the unexpected, in which we are open to what we do not yet know, and in which we slowly and gradually prepare for the day when we will reach out to a new level of being with God. True hope is tested by silence in which we have to wait on the Lord in the obedience of unquestioning faith...Faith demands the integrity of inner trust which produces wholeness, unity, peace, genuine security. Here we see the creative power and fruitfulness of silence. Not only does silence give us a chance to understand ourselves better, to get a truer and more balanced perspective on our own lives in relation to the lives of others: silence makes us whole if we let it. Silence helps draw together the scattered and dissipated energies of a fragmented existence. It helps to concentrate on a purpose that really corresponds not only to the deeper needs of our own being but also to God's intentions for us.
This is a really important point. When we live superficially, when we are always outside ourselves, never quite 'with' ourselves, always divided and pulled in many directions by conflicting plans and projects, we find ourselves doing many things that we do not really want to do, saying things we do not really mean, needing things we do not really need, exhausting ourselves for what we secretly realize to be worthless and without meaning in our lives: "Why spend your money on what is not food and your earnings on what never satisfies?" (Isaiah 55:2)
- As quoted in Thomas Merton: Essential Writings, pp. 72-77

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