Encounters with silence deepen our spiritual receptivity.
A striking recent encounter with silence was on the television show, Dancing with the Stars, when Nyle DiMarco, the first deaf male contestant, danced a section of his routine in sync with a group of professional dancers. But the dance was to silence not to music, thus illustrating for the judges and the audience his own inner world of silence. The emotional impact was powerful because it enabled the judges and the audience for a few moments to step inside his world, and helped them realize the incredible challenge Nyle had undertaken in entering the competition (as well as the great skill of his teacher, Peta).
Another encounter was at a Friday afternoon Boston Symphony Orchestra concert. Recently the BSO with conductor, Andris Nelsons, did a magnificent performance of Mahler’s 9th Symphony. The symphony was written in New York City two years after Mahler’s young daughter had died and about a year before Mahler’s own death. Both succumbed to infections that might be cured today. The four movements might be characterized as beauty, dance, chaos, peace. The very quiet ending was surprising, following an emotional climax in the fourth movement. The conductor, Andris Nelsons, held the orchestra in silence for several seconds, but someone in the audience could not stand the silence any longer, so shouted “Bravo” and the audience gave way to applause and a standing ovation. It left me wondering how long Nelson would have held the silence before putting down his baton. The silence was wondrously appropriate, almost as if the composer was saying, “I have given my all, my utmost, now I recognize that everything returns to the silence.” It reminds me of Shakespeare’s own thought, expressed as the last words of Hamlet before death, “the rest is silence.”
Both these encounters illustrate the contrasting reality of silence. Silence truly is the language of God, as Dag Hammarsjkold once said. Silence helps us step into God’s world for a little while.
I’ve been reading The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, edited by Bernard McGinn (2006 Modern Library, New York), a wonderful selection of the writings of Christian mystics. I recently read The Silent Outcry, a very brief, anonymous letter of spiritual direction from 14th Century Germany (p.141). The writer calls God, “you silent Outcry” and the text is brief but amazing:
Learn how to let go of God through God, the hidden God through the naked God. Be willing to lose a penny in order to find a guilder. Get rid of the water so that you can make wine. The creature is not strong enough to take God away from you, not even the least grace, as long as you yourself want him.
If you want to avoid things, learn to suffer; if you want to eat of the honey, you should not be put off by the bee’s sting. If you want to catch fish, learn to get wet; if you want to see Jesus on the shore (Jn. 21:4) learn to sink down into the sea first (Mt. 14:30).
Were it the case that you should see the heavens torn open and the stars falling, you should not let it make you lose your composure; God will not take himself from you unless you will it; how much less can a creature remove him.
Listen. Look. Suffer and be still. Release yourself into the light. See with intellect. Learn with discretion. Suffer with joy. Rejoice with longing. Have desire with forbearance. Complain to no one. My child, be patient and release yourself, because no one can dig God out from the ground of your heart.
O deep treasure, how will you be dug up? O high perfection, who may attain you? O flowing fountain, who can exhaust you? O burning Brilliance; outbursting Power; simple Return; naked Hiddenness; hidden Security; secure Confidence; simple silent One in all things; manifold Good in a single silence; you silent Outcry, no one can find you who does not know how to let you go.
Release yourself, my child, and thank God that he has given you such a way of life.
Both the examples of the conductor and the dancer were “outcries of silence”, messages from God to this world addicted to busyness and noise. Daily meditation practice prepares us to be receptive to these moments when they “cry out”. Daily meditation cultivates our desire for silence and convinces us of its centrality in the spiritual life.
Where do you hear the Silent Outcry?