02 April 2020

Return to silence (partly a repost)

Yesterday I was startled by the sound of an airplane overhead.

Until just a couple of weeks ago, I wouldn't have been able to write that line. Planes were overhead constantly. The lack of planes and cars in our daily soundscape here, in this era of self-isolation, has allowed me to hear distant human conversations, nearby birds and insects -- and I can, for once, almost literally hear myself think.

For a retiree, this silence may be golden. But there's a vacuum in the silence, too. The cessation of many familiar sounds is linked with another reality that rings very hollow -- the interruption of work and commerce. The silence on the streets is linked with a record flood of unemployment claims, over 6.6 million in the last full week of March.

Sometimes this deeper silence buoys me up, and sometimes it weighs on me. I'm a terminal introvert, but I've found that even I have limits to my desire for isolation. Unexpected reunions by e-mail and social networks have given me great delight. The nice speakers that Judy gave me for Christmas are booming with classical music when others are nearby, and blues when I'm alone.

Silence during my morning centering hour, on the other hand, seems more precious than ever. As I pass out of the zone of words into the spacious territory of quiet, I've become aware of a hum, a vibration at the very edge of my perception. Maybe it's like the low hum of an amplifier. Maybe it's simply the carrier waves of my nervous system. I'm sure there's a natural explanation. But I'm interpreting it differently, using the analogy of cosmic microwave background -- the residual waves still lingering throughout space from the big bang that gave birth to the universe. When God desired Creation into existence, that original motion of love has never died away, and if I listen carefully enough, I catch a hint of its persistent presence.

The current public health emergency interrupted the plans that Michael Eccles and I had made to be in Moscow for part of last month. Our very first appointment had been the twice-monthly Wednesday worship group of Moscow Friends. The following thoughts on silence originated in a presentation I made six years ago to that same group. I reposted it again three years later, but it has fresh meaning for me now.

Earlier versions of this post had my translation from Natasha Zhuravenkova's Russian version of Pierre Lacout's essay "God Is Silence" for the italicized quotations below. This time I've substituted John Kay's English translation from Lacout's original French.

Fritz Eichenberg, Christ of the Breadlines
Pierre Lacout and silence

The "Thursday group," a circle of Friends who meet on two Thursdays a month [now they meet on Wednesdays], 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. 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:
If nevertheless I speak, it is to communicate with souls whose silence is in unison with mine and who hear the Silence of God in the words I use. If I speak again it is to awaken to this silence souls ready to receive it.

And a bit further on, Regular practice is important. The Spirit blows where [the Spirit] will but ... only fills sails already spread.
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 willed attention [as contrasted with spontaneous attentiveness to an external distraction]. ... The fully developed religious life becomes a mystic life. For some 'mystic' is synonymous with 'exceptional', involving visions, transports, levitations. ... This is putting the important thing into second place, pushing the central to the periphery. For Paul, a mystic is a person who knows the fullness of Christ, who lives by the inflowing of the Holy Spirit: 'It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.' [Galatians 2:20; context.] And 'They are the [children] of God who are guided by [God's] Spirit.' [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!)

Lacout asserts that
Contemplative silence is a way of seeing which needs no object. It can only be defined as direction. It is a looking towards, not a looking at. Ideas about God are good only if I move quickly on from them. 
But those conceptions, or representations, have a use:
As a starting point [for the practice of silence], we choose beforehand a theme whch can gather together, not disperse, our spiritual forces. This preparation can be infinitely varied according to individual personality, 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 a 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.
But the one who does not stop on the way, but goes beyond meditation, ideas and the enjoyment they give, to silence itself; the one who seeks the deepest Center, the very heart of being; such a one cannot avoid meeting in [their] path 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.

Originally published on March 6, 2014.



Silent worship: "I wouldn't last five minutes."

Weldon Nisly of Christian Peacemaker Teams writes on enemy love, and on not becoming what you hate. (PDF, go to page five.)

Roger E. Olson's blog specializes in theological posts that simply and calmly invite discussion on topics that are anything but simple. This is why I've linked to him several times in the past. This time he asks if a true Christian can be demon-possessed.

Micael Grenholm lists the five worst Christian responses to the coronavirus pandemic.
We also believe in healing and the value of fellowship. But if the Jesus movement could go on fine during its first 300 years without cathedrals or megachurches, we can handle a few weeks or months.
It's been a long time since I posted anything about Linux-based operating systems. Jack Wallen presents two helpful articles ... the five best Linux desktop distributions, and the rise of the Linux distribution-specific laptop. (Here's mine, still going strong.)

While we're in the world of computers, I'm going to try Wess Daniels' recommended research-oriented notetaking application, Roam Research.

Megan and Rebecca Lovell, known together as Larkin Poe:

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