Silence as the way of emancipation


In the monastic tradition, the art of silence plays a major role. Here are some thoughts on this inexhaustible theme. To make a long story short: a taciturn attitude to life initiates an inner move: from a limited ‘I’ awareness to a liberated state of being and acting. The condition is that silence is real: silence. Empty, emptier, emptiest. If desires or interests come into play, then silence is quickly over – no matter how quiet one is…

1. The Importance of Silence

Our silence is about our speaking
Practicing in silence questions our speech above all. A wise word says: ‘I am a hole in a flute through which the breath of Christ moves. Listen to the music.’ When we are recommended to be silent often and much, we are actually asked: is it Christ music that you produce, not ‘made’, but born of the Father and therefore alive and giving life?

Speak Us Like Cheats
Reflecting on the state of the world, we can’t help but say, ‘No, it isn’t; our speaking is false’. Or else I would love to make it more personal: ‘My speech is false. By the grace of God, there may be a clean note every now and then, but above all it contributes to the growth and flowering of a kingdom that is not remotely like what we may think of the Kingdom of God. And that while I am called upon to know that I can help to build on that’.

If the fathers sing of the virtue of silence, it is because we are apparently cheaters, or, let me nuance this, do not properly intotone and articulate most words, take too long or too short while also putting the emphasis wrong. Think of the difference between a violin virtuoso and a well-meaning amateur. Even if they play the same notes, oh what a world of difference. And so our humanity is still only a very amateurish affair compared to that of the first professional man: Jesus the Christ.

‘Lord I am not worthy’ as basic attitude
Our silence therefore cannot find a better root than in this observation: our speaking is absolutely nothing, not even that about God and commandment. And from dawn to dusk there could be no better word on our lips than this: “Lord, I am not worthy.” Now I realize very well that what to me is a confession full of far-reaching implications, can have the effect of a red rag to a bull on others. ‘What a hostile view of humanity is that’ I’ve heard. Understandable, because how often has a poor understanding of this confession not been an instrument of oppression? But also: just because a knife is used to kill doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pick up knives anymore, does it?

Therefore, yes and again and again, ‘Lord I am not worthy’, by which we do not mean we are not worthy of God’s childhood, but that we behave in a way that is not befitting His children; as ‘below our position’. And the fact that a monastic order of the day keeps stopping life, must above all also have to do with this salvific insight. Because how tempting is it not to detect ‘nice sides’ in ourselves, words or deeds that we may even pride ourselves on. The monk’s prerogative: again and again he may let this disastrous thought “drop out” just as he drops his work when the moment of prayer comes. ‘No, not your worth, but God’s worth’ is the message. Again and again and again: back to square one. To the ‘beginner’s mind’. ‘Not your speaking, but God’s speaking. ‘

To avoid misunderstandings here too: God’s speaking does not conflict with what or who we are, but wants nothing more than that we embody it. If believing aims to bring us closer to God, it includes our approach to the image God had of us when he created us: to become so ‘ourselves’ when we cannot imagine ourselves in our wildest dreams…

2. When words come close to our silence

Filling the Void: God’s Speaking Codified and ‘kaltgestellt’
But what is so interesting: most of the ‘back to the start’, ‘become empty and quiet’ methods and moments often speak a lot, often with accompanying gestures, customs and buildings. In order to sit at the feet of the Lord with Mary, we sometimes have to work just as hard as that busy Martha, there is so much ‘must’ and ‘should’. The thought often occurs to me that, in a roundabout way, people still manage to escape the emptiness. What is meant as ‘humbly pleading’, a practice of becoming available, receptive, a practice of a sense of complete helplessness, may equally well be a form of self-affirmation. Not out of ill will, far from it, and it’s certainly not a big deal. But isn’t the devil in the details? It’s not that he spits fire or blows brimstone that makes him so dangerous, but that he can imitate the real thing so almost perfectly. A knee bend can just as well be a form of self-aggrandizement. And even if we seriously think we long for God, we may actually be obeying the call of our ego in search of something to hold on to. Because how safe are the familiar word and the tried-and-tested ritual, especially in a world that seems to be intertwined with uncertainties?

But how?
How to deal with this then? How do we promote that a ‘back to the bottom’ attitude to life is not an escape, but is always a conscious descent to that inner zero place where we have let go of all certainty and dare to be like a motionless listening without knowing why, to what or to whom, or even who that is, the listening one?

How can our silence really be silence instead of the hushed manifestation of a judgment, condemnation, opinion or wish?

3. An alternative practice of silence

Silence proposal: Making word clouds
To this end I have developed a method of practice that finds its starting point in Paul’s saying: ‘not I, but God in me’. For from this we may conclude that there are apparently two forces at work in us. ‘The only’ thing that would then be necessary is to be able to distinguish them from each other. How simple things can be! Now, of course, you may argue that we have been given that discernment through our knowing God in and through Jesus the Christ. And so it is. But at the same time, that seems too short-sighted to me. For what power in us is it then that knows the Christ? How do we know if it is the ‘not me’ force or the ‘God in me’ force? How do we know whether our knowing is indeed knowing and not: projecting?

In this context I would like to introduce the reader to a method that works like a train for me: making word clouds.

To be present for is… to be present for.
Here’s how it works: Linking the ‘Not-I but God-in-me’ thought to the ‘Lord I am not worthy’ notion, the Word Cloud exercise assumes that my interpretation of anything inside me makes noise or movement, should be counted in the ‘Lord I am not worthy’ domain. So also my longing for God or to know God or to know God or to know God through Jesus Christ his son. I assume: I don’t get it, I don’t understand it. I regard all my thinking and all my feeling interpretations as deaf and blind, worth only what the madman gives for it. In other words, I do not attach any value to anything I think or want or desire or hope. It doesn’t matter if it’s ripe or green, noble or scandalous. I don’t consider anything ‘worthy of confession’ about my thinking and thinking, as it were. And so I go to confession all the time inwardly. I write down what goes on in my head again and again without discrimination in what I call ‘word clouds’, after which I let them ‘soak’ or ‘rain through’ in complete passivity. I don’t like it and I don’t like it, that’s how passive I take to the content of my word clouds. I don’t keep a distance, but I don’t try to get closer either. The maximum and at the same time minimum what I do: I am there for it. I let the impact of those empty raining word clouds carry me down to my toes. For everything that speaks in me, including emotions, feelings and physical sensations, I keep myself completely silently available, without this silent in me deeming itself capable of any speaking or non-speaking. My silent availability does and therefore wants nothing but this: to be silent, empty, motionless for… the content of my word clouds.

It’s a bit difficult to describe what ‘the result’ is. I’ll try. What seems to be happening is that more of what I’m doing develops: my becoming available for – in the first instance my own ‘existing’ thoughts – becomes a becoming available for … ‘without more’. I liken it to moving house. I live or dwell less and less in my mind through this practice and more and more in my awareness of it. It is as if my availability to what I briefly call the ‘voice of my head’ makes me available to the ‘voice of my heart’ in one effort. As a result, I experience myself less and less as just an extension, or even prisoner, of my thoughts. I no longer have to ‘carry’ or endure, praise or disapprove of myself because of the strange sensation that what pretends to be my ‘self’, my ‘I’, in the bottom of things doesn’t seem at all to exist. Slowly an experience takes over me that I am not who or what I think I am, but that my being, my ‘I’, is separate from it and is rather a state, a condition, than an entity. To the extent that I ‘have’ such a thing as an identity, it seems to consist of being available for the nourishment provided in the moment. Rather I experience myself as a relational event that is never and never unrelated to anything or anyone, than as a limited ‘being’ who chooses to maintain a relationship with one and not the other on the basis of the one’s disapproval. or appreciation for the other.

At the same time: every word I put on paper about this is one too many. What I wrote here may also immediately be put back into a word cloud, which can then be rained out, because that is precisely why silence is so recommended to us, because it is our words – which then also become deeds – that stand in the way of us saying the Word. above all Words learning to embody a little better each time. Which brings us to where this story began: Fundamentally, the proverbs about silence are not about whether or not we should open our mouths, but about what, better yet, who, us speaking and expresses our actions by extension.

Do we embody a time-overtaken and withered word about God or His actual sight and life-giving word? Finally, the following in this regard.

4. What Silence Can Produce

View of your own place
The purpose of our silence is not that we should no longer think, say or do anything, but that we should learn to express better and better what is ‘at order’ in God’s order. The psalmist says, “I praise you with sincerity of heart, now that I understand your rule of law.” The less we believe in the words that come out of the mouth of our own will, our ego, the more open the ears – and eyes – of our heart, we become on the track of what to do. In this sense, silence is an instrument that serves to get to know and dare to take our place in the totality of things. It wants to help us – as said before – to ‘move’: from dwelling in our own will, to dwelling in God’s will for us, which is the same as God’s love for us, which is the same as God’s love for, involvement in, permeation of, presence in, all of creation.

Can’t take a Martha step without first sitting like Mary
We know the story of Martha and Mary and also the twists and turns in which the scholars bend not to read this in such a way that we would all become inactive Marys, because what would become of the so necessary service to – for example – the poor? However, I read this story in such a way that the “good” or even “best” part that Mary chose does not mean permanent idle idleness, but that Jesus emphasizes that our actions should always be rooted in the silent receptivity of our hearts; the good part is then: the first part, the starting point, the foundation of our thinking, speaking and doing; our consciousness, every breath again, that nothing makes sense unless it is rooted in the inspiration of God’s spirit, and that only because it happens out of and with and for love, and not because it should be or because people would think it shame if we would leave it behind. I am reminded of Paul’s song of praise to love. No matter how often we cook in so many soup kitchens for so many poor people, it is of no use to us unless we do it out of love. In silence, in sitting at the feet of the Lord, it becomes clear to us what we mean, how, to whom. And would we, acting from and to love, be the kind of lament or “wrath” that we hear from Martha? Acting in and out of love we can do no other than that, we are so full of it that we simply lack the space for dissatisfaction. We don’t even ‘think’ that we would be short of help.

Silence as the way of emancipation
It therefore does not seem impossible to me that the Lord describes with Martha not so much Mary’s biological sister as our inner sister: that voice so dearly loved within us that, for the apparently noblest reasons, keeps stopping us from reflecting again and again. before we start any work. Martha begins to resemble the serpent in that interpretation to which Eve hung her ears. Again, the Lord does not say ‘no, you do not have to be hospitable’, let alone that a so-called religious life is preferable to a so-called worldly life. What matters is: what does our sense of that life go back to? What is our existence rooted in? In our thinking about it or in its single and pure ‘given’? And I believe that Jesus says about this as much as: Unless every breath, every step, every thought, every word and every deed is impregnated by God’s love, there is no question of life at all. Learning to ‘shut up’ is then a condition for learning to be reborn from moment to moment as a child of God and then to learn to speak and act in a ‘child-worthy’ way. And that is why I also call the way of silence an emancipatory way, because such speaking and doing will often by definition not recognize itself in the regulations of the established authorities. Yes, silence and stillness can look peaceful and ‘sweet’, but just as much as driving merchants out of the temple.

5. From the tradition

  • He also said: Every difficulty you encounter is overcome by silence. (Poimen 37; 611)

Some other sayings in this regard:

  • Further, Poimen has said: There is a man who is apparently silent, and whose heart condemns others; such a person always speaks. And there is another who, speaking from morning to night, also observes silence, that is, who says nothing if it is of no use.’ (Poimen 27; 601, translation GM/HH/TK)
  • A brother asked Abbot Poimên, “Which is better, to speak or to be silent?” The old man answered him, “Whoever speaks for God does well, and whoever is silent for God also does.”
  • LETTER 554
    The same brother asked the other old man: “My thought tells me that if I want to be saved, I must leave this monastic community and practice the silence, as the fathers have said. For the work in the carpenter’s workshop is not profitable to me, for it causes me much noise and torment.” Answer by John: Brother, you have already been told that it is not advantageous for you to leave the monastic community. And now I tell you it will be your downfall when you leave. You therefore know what to do. If you really want to be saved, then acquire humility, obedience and submission, that is, cut off your own will and you will live both in heaven and on earth. As for the silence the fathers speak of, you don’t even know what this is. For this silence is not a matter of silence with one’s mouth, for one may speak a thousand useful words and this may be regarded as silence, while another speaks but a vain word, and it is regarded as trampling upon the teaching of the Savior. For it has been said, ‘On the day of judgment you shall give an account of every vain word that proceeds out of your mouth. Since you also say that the work in the carpenter’s workshop does not benefit you, believe me, brother, you do not know whether it is of any benefit to you or not. These are snares of the devil, showing your mind whatever they will, in order that you do your own will and disobey that of your fathers. For whoever wishes to know the truth asks the fathers whether it benefits or harms one. And that person believes whatever they say, and practices what is beneficial. many have paid a price to be taunted and to be taught patience. You, however, learn patience at no cost, because the Lord says, “By your patience you will gain your soul.” We should be thankful to the person who torments us. For through such a person we acquire patience. You would do well to stay. May the devil not please you. May the Lord help you. Amen
  • One of the forefathers paid Abbot Achillas a visit, and he saw that he was spewing blood from his mouth. So he asked him, “What’s the matter, Father?” And the old man answered: “That is the word of a brother who has grieved me. It took me a lot of struggle not to let him know. So I begged God to take it away from me. Then the word became like blood in my mouth. I spit it out, got peace again and forgot about the sadness.” (4)
  • It was said of Abbot Agathoon that he kept a stone in his mouth for three years, until he had mastered the silence. (15)

(Proverbs thanks to br Thijs Ketelaars osb)

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