Posted by: Mark Nielsen | December 6, 2011

Silent Nights: Does silence make you uncomfortable?

Franz Gruber's original 1818 music and German lyrics for Silent Night

(click here for fun background on the famous carol)

I attended a MALEs-sponsored retreat recently about encountering God (or The Universe, or whatever term lets you feel comfortable) in Silence. Is yours the God Who Speaks, the God Who IS  (a.k.a. I AM), or some other variation? Do you need God to “speak” to hear what God is saying to us, or can He really raise up stones as prophets, as the Gospel tells us?

The retreat speaker, Susan Komis of St. Louis, is one of Contemplative Outreach’s primary teachers of Centering Prayer and the contemplative approach to faith and human development.

So when WordPress, my blog-hosting site, offered the above title as a “conversation starter” question about silence earlier this week, I took it as my Blues Brothers style “I’m-on-a-mission-from-God” cue to write this post about my experience with silence.

First of all, a confession: it was a challenging retreat, mostly in a good way, but not entirely. Among the various challenges: my dualistic mind is always on the lookout for “New Age-y” sounding principles to intellectually disagree with, and I did hear a few things that rubbed me the wrong way. But I will not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Those learning to engage in these ancient spiritual disciplines, or to unlearn some modern word or text-based ones, will likely know what I’m talking about regarding the both the blessings and the difficulty.

For instance: It has been a long-standing battle for me, being a classic extrovert and occasional blowhard, to just shut up and let the Holy Spirit (or other people) get a word in edgewise. Thus, if I have interrupted you in conversation in the past decade, I’m sorry. It’s a compulsive thing, you see…

Furthermore, in 46 years, I have accumulated all this “related experience” that often clouds the clear water of a quieted mind. I can’t shut off the faucet of my own consciousness or neediness — the tendency to categorize, qualify, connect with or contradict whatever stimulus or idea I encounter.

Oops. It just happened again. Not that it is very relevant, but here’s an odd illustration of my point:

I just now recalled that avant garde classical composer John Cage once released and “performed” a musical work consisting of 3-4 minutes of complete silence. Those with a philosophic bias toward postmodernism would say “Brilliant!” Those with a “common sense” traditionalism would say “Bull pucky! He’s a fraud.” And in my opinion, both groups are right. That’s one of the challenges of non-dualistic thinking — to accept reality without attaching one’s own evaluation to that reality, to love what just IS.

ON THE OTHER HAND…

We live in an age where one of the main mantras of the developed world is this:

“Knowledge is power.”

But what if  one is already a know-it-all bully, or a power-mad jerk? (And I will again confess to facing that temptation, every day… temptation to control my surroundings before they exert their control over me.) Does everyone else have to just accept the loudmouth or “expert”, as is?

Taken to the socio-political level: If we truly are in the “information age”, then what will become of those whose access to more or better information is limited by economic need, or by full-fledged oppression? I heard a recent NPR report about the nation of Syria’s deployment of a “digital army” of propagandists and hackers, and it chilled me to the bone to consider it. (Come ‘n get me, Syria…) Not that my own nation doesn’t do it as well, but that temptation to “demonize” our enemies is another of those practices that I find it hard to unlearn.

The near-collapse of the banking system recently is another very real example of those with specialized knowledge using that power for their own gain, while the rest of us dummies go on assuming we just have to live with the partly-broken system that lets them keep doing it. The devil you know is safer than the one you don’t, as they say…

In contrast, Jesus and Buddha said an awful lot about compassion, humility, and the dangers of a “will to power”.  Jesus went off repeatedly to pray alone, but he also spoke up, brashly, about genuine injustice.

Silence and screaming: the two approaches can go hand in hand, so long as one submits that impetus to scream to the Highest Authority first.

That’s the only version of  “The People’s Microphone” that I think will have any serious impact in the years to come. I recognize that the present atmosphere of mistrust (from the local level all the way up to the international), in the absence of a common experience of that Higher Authority or of any real inner peace/security, makes that sort of unity difficult to imagine. But I’m going to keep trying to build that unity, if you don’t mind. Considering the ridiculous alternatives  –like assured mutual destruction, or the permanent breakdown of the planet itself –what else would you expect?

So uninvolved, isolated, angry, or fear-based silence is not the kind of “loving acceptance of reality” that I am talking about. Knowledge allowed to reign over ethics is not a respect for life’s holiness, but an overdependence upon external and often false authority structures.

An odd little thought experiment to illustrate my point:

If a kid sat by and silently watched vandals trash his father’s treasured ’57 Chevy, just because Dad spent more time working on it than he did playing catch with his son, that would be just one more wrong piled atop previous wrongs. Meanwhile, our heavenly Father considers each person on earth His precious ’57 Chevy, and weeps with grief and compassion when we vandalize each other’s soul.

Nevertheless, in the supposedly democratic West, we may be headed toward a culture that is addicted to that vandalism (we call it debate, argumentation, politics, academic dialectic or scientific inquiry), and to our own inner and outer noise. We stand on our right to think and express and do what we want, how we want, when we want. We confuse liberty with license. But we don’t take the time to think about what’s good for us (let alone what is best for the “common good” of all). Follow the money… and it will lead you right to that eye of the needle that Jesus talked about.

I suspect that those who defer to a subculture and refuse to think for themselves, or to genuinely feel their feelings, likely have the hardest time with silence. (Subcultures: corporate consumerism, liberalism, conservatism, Deadheads, Shi’ites, academics, anarchists, militarists, traditionalists, even religionists… take your pick.) What if in that Silence we meet Someone who will ask us to grow and change, to let go of whatever cheap imitation of grace we are overly attached to? Can’t have that upsetting the apple cart, can we?

That whole thing I think Freud said about an “unexamined life” not being a good idea is still pretty solid, basic wisdom. But even those examinations should not be compulsive. (One of my own pretty bad hangups, frankly.)  Good therapy –and lest we forget, Father Thomas Keating’s approach to contemplative prayer is alternately called “Divine Therapy”– should always be run through the filter of God’s grace and love.

If we run from silence, preferring the distraction of external chaos to the steadiness of God’s Presence and acceptance, we do ourselves and the world a disservice. The human soul is hungry for peace and silence, but we moderns have gotten in the habit of starving it, or just feeding it a few stray scraps of quiet, a few days a week (or maybe during regular smoke breaks, which have their own inherent blessed/broken quality).

So what is the relationship between meeting God in silence, and facing one’s own complicity in the  genuinely broken state of our beautiful ’57 Chevy of a world?

To quote my buddy Bono, from a couple decades ago in Rattle & Hum’s “Silver and Gold“:

“Am I buggin’ you? I don’t mean to bug ya.”


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