Thursday, February 02, 2012

On Silence

Ages ago I wrote about the spiritual discipline of silence. I have not ceased to think about it since then, but neither has my experience of it deepened (this is connected to my desire for an authentic spirituality, which judging by that last linked post, I have come a long way).

A few things, lately, have focused my attention on silence (or hesychia, for my Orthodox friends) in a concentrated way. One is my use of language in the classroom, especially innuendo (a Bible teacher using innuendo? Alas, it is true.); the other is the fervid disquiet that I have been actively cultivating for as long as I remember.

In regards to the first, I am reminded by my excessively short version of morning prayer that my mouth does not belong to me:

"Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise. Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen."

My lips, first in the morning (this is the first thing I say everyday), are consecrated to the praise of God -- not to complaining, not to anger or frustration, not even to my own various creaturely needs, but to the praise of God. How quickly, though, I forget it! When I teach, the demands of edutainment often seem to take hold. A student that other day quite nicely said, "Your lecture was very funny today." While she meant it as a compliment, I couldn't help but think of the massive failure on my part that such a statement entailed. I don't want to be funny (this is not technically true, I do want to be funny, I want to be liked -- but teaching isn't about being liked, it is about formation and inviting students into the wonder that is God's world and God's Life in the world), I want to teach with the full gravity and levity necessary in God's good-yet-broken world. Part of it, I think, is the desire to connect with students where they are: I see what popular culture has provided and I often pander to its level. In the end, though, it is not the lowest common denominator that I need to reach for, but rather I am to be a witness to that which is beyond and above this: what calls us to look to our culture and say "come and see," "further up and farther in," and "become what you are meant to be." In this there is great need for silence, as the mystery of God's world confronts us with both the majesty of His every present grace and the desolation of our hatred of the Light. Too often, maybe to break away from the crisis, I turn the whole world into a joke -- and thereby conflate its destruction. Lord, have mercy.

The second part is like it and to my mind is the root cause. I love silence (anyone, I think, who speaks for a living longs for it), but my silence is not true silence. My thoughts, seemingly of necessity, rumble and ramble behind all my speaking and silence. There is no relief. Normally, as well, the thoughts of my heart are anything but what a man in Christ should think. This often leads to what I termed a "fervid disquiet" in which I hack and burn at my fellows, at God, at His creation. Instead, I need an inner silence to complement any outer silence. I need inner silence when I speak audibly, for only then can I exert -- through the power of the holy Spirit -- some control over what I say. With a turbid heart, constantly kicking up muck and mire, there is no possibility of streams of living water following through my words. I must learn to pray, without ceasing, another part of the Psalms:

"Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer" (Ps. 19:14).

Yes, it is not enough for outward words to be clean, to be free of idleness or idolness. The very meditation -- the muttering -- of my heart must also come under the domain and quiet dominion of the Lord Christ.

I seek, in my overly active life, hesychia: stillness and silence before God. For then, and only then, can I be a witness and a conduit for the Word of God, who has redeemed and cleansed the mouth of man by taking flesh upon himself and speaking the words of eternal life.