"Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper." 1 Kings 19:11-12
I'm weary of words. Our national discourse has become loud and shrill. Everywhere we go, it seems, we are followed by the strident staccato of Wolf Blitzer urging us towards the edge of our seats. In doctors' offices, airport lounges, bars and restaurants, dozens of talking heads bombard us with opinions. Politics has become a warfare of words, verbal grenades lobbed back and forth, shattering our eardrums. The blogosphere gets ever more angry, metastasizing into a hundred million malignant cells.
I weary even of my own words, which have their own abrasive edge. More and more, I long for silence, most especially my own. I'm tired of my own voice, nattering on. That's simple, you say -- just shut up. Close the laptop and put it away.
Easier said than done. Thought and words are inseparable. Thoughts cry out for expression. All the philosophers tell us: Language defines our humanity. Seal your lips and you cease to be human.
Well, yes and no. Thoreau rejoiced in the hoot of the owl in the twilight woods. But he also took note of the interval between the hoots, a deepened silence that suggested "a vast and undeveloped nature which men have not recognized." That's where I want to go, into the silent interval, deepened and made more alluring by the bracketing hoots.
The silence that Thoreau wrote about is not just an absence of sound; it is no less than the voice of the God Pascal speaks of in the epigraph to this essay, the Deus Absconditus of the mystics who eludes every spoken word, most especially, perhaps, the personal pronoun "who." The silence Thoreau speaks of is not separate from nature. It is the vast and unarticulated nature which lies beyond our present knowing.
So, yes, silence is more than mere absence of sound. Ladislaus Boros says that "silence opens up the finite world to the infinite." Note that "finite" and "infinite" are not synonyms for "natural" and "supernatural." The natural universe we inhabit may indeed be infinite, and in any case is effectively so. The finite is that which we presently understand and speak of reliably in language. The infinite is that which is yet unspoken. The infinite is the great silence in which we live and move and have our being.
In all of this, science is closer to the mystics than are many traditionally religious people. Scientists do not speak of what they do not know. Scientists as venerable as Joseph Priestly and Thomas Huxley spoke of knowledge as an island in a sea of mystery. The island grows by our painstaking efforts; the sea remains. If the mystery speaks to us at all, it is a gentle whisper. The typical religious person, on the other hand, never ceases to talk of knowing God, even claiming a "personal relationship." The typical religious person fills the interval between the hoots with chants and prayers and theologies and apologetics and revelations -- a clamorous sea of language where language has no place.
But silence has its champions within all religious traditions. In the last century perhaps no one spoke so poetically of silence as the German Catholic philosopher Max Picard. His best known book is called The World of Silence:
It is a sign of the love of God that a mystery is always separated from man by a layer of silence. And that is a reminder that man should also keep a silence in which to approach the mystery. Today, when there is only noise in and around man, it is difficult to approach the mystery. When the layer of silence is missing, the extraordinary easily becomes connected with the ordinary, with the routine flow of things...What many preachers say about the Mystery of God is often lifeless and therefore ineffectual. What they say comes only from words jumbled up with many thousands of other words...But it is in silence that the first meeting between man and the Mystery of God is accomplished, and from silence the word also receives the power to become extraordinary as the Mystery of God is extraordinary.One need not be a Christian, or even a theist, to grasp the truth in what Picard has to say. And again let me stress that "ordinary" and "extraordinary" are not synonyms for "natural" and supernatural; every ordinary thing is enveloped within the extraordinary as words are enveloped by silence.
We call the origin of the universe the Big Bang. But there was no "bang." There was energy, light, then matter, and -- and silence. The world came into being wrapped in silence. We speak, we write, we blog, we chatter, and all of that is what makes us human, but it's all idle when disconnected from the the great silence which is the universe. "Silence is God's first language," said John of the Cross. We make sacraments of owls -- audible signs of the silence between the hoots.
Max Picard linked silence to faith. The more important link is to humility. Silence is the great teacher that cautions us to hold our tongue in the face of what we do not know. On which note, I will shut up.
(This slightly modified post originally appeared in October 2008.)