06 March 2014

Pierre Lacout and silence

Fritz Eichenberg, Christ of the Breadlines

The "Thursday group," a circle of Friends who meet on two Thursdays a month, invited me to speak on Friends' understanding of silence, which I did this evening. I was so delighted by the invitation, since for me silence is like spiritual oxygen.

I started by telling about an incident that happened to me at the age of 19, when I was living in rural Pennsylvania and had to walk an hour every workday in the early morning, sometimes starting in darkness, to meet my ride the rest of the way to the Western Electric factory at King of Prussia. I spent the day on the assembly line. At the end of the day, I had the same four-mile walk in reverse, back home. One day, walking in silence as always, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the certainty that I was not an observer, separate from the landscape around me, but that I was the observed one, with the whole visible reality around me was doing the observing.

I fast-forwarded a few years to Ottawa Friends Meeting, within whose community I lived for three years, 1974-77, from the time I became a Christian until the moment I left Canada. I talked about my spiritual mentor, Deborah Haight, and the sense of centeredness I felt in her presence. Deborah was born into a Conservative Friends family in Norwich, Ontario. There were some in our Friends meeting who seemed to aim for an ideal of perfect silence in the meetingroom--street noises and even the sound of children could be a problem. But I had this feeling that Deborah held silence within her.

Discussion handout; read online
The rest of my comments this evening were based on Swiss Friend Pierre Lacout's booklet God Is Silence, which is available online in Russian, translated by Natasha Zhuravenkova. I organized my thoughts around some quotations from that booklet, which I had put in a handout along with discussion questions. Since I don't have an English-language copy, the italicized excerpts that follow are from the Russian text. I also drew from J. Brent Bill's Holy Silence and Anthony Bloom's conversations on prayer entitled "Let's Try Praying in Truth." (PDF, Russian.)

Lacout, after extolling the advantage of silence:
And if, even so, I speak, it's just to communicate with those whose silence resonates with mine and who hear the Silence of God in my words. And if I speak again after that, it's to encourage silence among those ready to receive it. And a bit further on, It's important to practice silence regularly. The Spirit blows where the Spirit wishes, but fills only those sails which are already raised.
Here I emphasized the inner discipline implicit in Lacout's words, and asked if this was any different from what Katherine Evans was talking about among early Friends when she said, "...we had thousands at our meetings, but none (of us) dare speak a word, but as they are eternally moved of the Lord...."

And when our Friend Jan Wood encourages us to "tell the stories of God's power among us," as we might experience it in worship, is this the same kind of talking that Pierre Lacout advocates among those who would otherwise prefer silence? As we discussed how to bring the gift of silence to those for whom deliberate silence is a wholly new idea, Friends mentioned how important it is to demystify it for newcomers to our worship, and not to let Quaker "culture" repel the tender visitor.

More from Lacout on the discipline of silence:
The life of silence is always a deliberate attentiveness [as contrasted with spontaneous attentiveness to an external distraction]. ... The fully-developed religious life becomes the life of a mystic. For some, "mystical" is synonymous with "not normal," bringing to mind visions, trances, levitation... This kind of approach focuses on secondary aspects instead of the main point. For Paul, the mystic is an individual who has come into the fullness of Christ, whose life is filled by the Holy Spirit: "I no longer live, but Christ lives in me." [Galatians 2:20; context.] And "For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God." [Romans 8:14; context.]
We spent some time on the question of whether devotional literature, as some have suggested, tends to be written by introverts for introverts, and to what extent Lacout's insights apply equally to those of other temperaments. (Several Friends laughingly took issue with my self-description as an introvert, but I assured them it was a valid label!)

Return of the Prodigal Son
Lacout asserts that
contemplative silence is visioning that doesn't require an objective, a target. It can only be designated as a direction. It involves looking in the direction of something, rather than looking right at something. Conceptions of God are fine as long as I quickly move beyond them. 
But those conceptions, or representations, have a use:
As a starting point [for the practice of silence] we choose an object that can gather together our spiritual strengths, rather than letting them dissipate. This kind of preparation can be endlessly varied according to individual inclinations, character, vocation, and religious experience. 
Here I mentioned the role of pictures (Eichenberg, for example, or Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son) in my own life, as well as music, books, and so on. I wish we had spent longer on gathering ideas from the other participants this evening.

I mentioned that  lot of spiritual literature, including that written by and about Friends, reminds me of socialist realism--it's so upbeat and aspirational that we can wonder whether we'll ever have such wonderfully angelic and serene inner lives. Lacout writes honestly about two main obstacles to growth in silence--firstly, distractions and dissipation, and, secondly, the inner demons of the subconscious.
The one who doesn't stop along the way, but goes on past the joys of reflection, and arrives at genuine silence--in other words, the one who seeks the deepest Center, the very heart of existence--cannot avoid encounters with the subconscious and its phantoms. 
Unfortunately, we barely had time to touch on this important aspect, and the related topic of inner healing, during this evening's session.

One of the topics of our lively discussion afterwards was this question: was there a difference between what we know as Christian prayer and the sort of objectless, contemplative silence that Lacout seems to describe? In the material I distributed, I mentioned Brent Bill's comparison of the Eucharist and Quaker worship, particularly his insight that "We become the liturgist, priest, penitent, and communicant." None of these roles are the end point of silence, but to me they are crucial movements on the path. I talked about the villages in my head (now there are four!) in trying to describe why, for me, intercession is one of the central "objects" of silent prayer. I may cherish the experience of absolute self-abandonment to the Holy Spirit, but first I have to stay rooted enough to keep my promises!

It's also vitally important to remember that Pierre Lacout's definition of a mystic implies that the practitioner of contemplative silence may be "objectless" but is far from empty. I remembered the biblically resonant comments of my Dagestani conversation partner last week--"If God isn't there, something else will fill that space."

I'm so grateful to the Thursday group for giving me the chance to put these thoughts together and to hear their experiences. Including our own time of silent worship, three hours flew by too quickly.

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"Taking the Start-Up Scene from PDX to Gaza." Thanks to Stu Willcuts @ Mercy Corps for the reference.

Anthony Bloom speaks on Forgiveness Sunday. (In English.)

Rory Block, "If I had possession over judgment day." (Part of my series in memory of Jeremy Mott.)

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