An excerpt from The Lost Way to the Good
“It is not easy to find any name that will readily fit such transcendent majesty. In fact, it is better just to say that this Trinity is the one God from whom are all things, through whom are all things, in whom are all things.”St Augustine
We spend so much time talking. When we are not talking, we fill the gap by watching other people talking. We put the television on “just for company.” As a parish priest, I visited households where it is kept on all day, even while I was there to talk about funeral arrangements or wedding plans. Yet even the most ardent viewer will happily admit that most of what is said on the game shows, chat shows and soaps is quite meaningless. Most of it, in fact, they won’t really hear and won’t remember. It is just there as a comfort blanket of noise. Anything to muffle the awful silence.
Few people will admit that they are actually afraid of silence. I wonder whether that is because we have never really encountered it. A few years ago, a British “reality TV” program invited some secular twenty-somethings to spend an extended retreat in a convent. Some of the contestants, if that is what they were, were absolutely terrified when they met real silence for the first time. In general, modernity offers unparalleled opportunities for its obliteration. Even when the TV is unplugged, the cellphone put away in the drawer, the stereo silenced, perhaps to go out for a quiet stroll or even just to try to sleep, the noise inside the head continues. The outer chatter may be subdued, but the inner chatter gibbers on relentlessly. And on reflection, most of our inner dialogue, too, is inane. Thoughts suggest themselves in Tweet length. Our rewired minds begin to see all things of beauty as Instagram opportunities. Social occasions are exploited for maximal Facebook potential.
Silence is an acquired taste, and perhaps it has never been more difficult to acquire than now; but like connoisseurs of fine wines or whiskies, those who learn to love it will find their palette becomes attuned to a new world of tastes and subtle distinctions. To swtich metaphors, there are as many kinds of silence as there are of snow.
There are the light and drifting kinds of silence which never settle and which you know any minute will pass. The silence of a conversation which has run its course. The silence of an awkward goodbye. The silences between tracks on a CD.
There are the slushy, sleet-like silences, neither liquid nor quite solid, ambiguous in meaning. The silence between a couple dining at a table for two, born of a familiarity into which the observer might read either intimacy or contempt. There are sudden blizzards of silence, like the gaps between blasts of thunder. Sudden drifts of anticipation hastily cleared, but the effects of which, good or ill, may linger. Silences of deceptive brevity which, in that moment, seem eternal. The silence before the punchline of a joke well told. The silence at the end of the symphony, that moment before applause. The silence after words which cannot be unsaid: words like “I love you” or “I leave you.”
There are frosted silences which isolate a moment and hold it still and glistening for slow inspection. The silence of a frozen leaf or corpse before it thaws and decomposes. The silence of an empty house with its contents left untouched for years. The silence of an Auschwitz shower room.
There are drifts of silence so deep they block your door and cover your car, suffocating and stifling. The silence of the mute and muted. The silence of a frightened witness. The silence of a journalist imprisoned and released, afraid to speak. The silence of depression. The silence you heard when you were dragged under the waves as a child and feared you would drown.
There is the salutary silence of the first snowfall to wake you from autumnal slumber, the blast of cold which concentrates your mind and makes you hasten your step. A silence of refreshment, clarity and focus. The silence of absolute concentration on a task well done. The silence of a serious place like a church, library or dojo.
There is the silence of the snow on a mountaintop when the mist descends, and all you can see beneath your feet and before your face is white, a dazzling darkness and blinding glow. The sort of silence which drives you to your knees in sheer awe. The silence of contrition after a confession well made. The silence before the Cross in the Good Friday liturgy, gradually unveiled.
Then there are those thick, enduring silences, layered upon layer, in impenetrable, unfathomable drifts. Those greater Arctic silences spreading to the horizon and beyond, inviting and forbidding, which pierce the bone even when you gaze on them through the windows a fire-warmed room. Simple, even simplifying in their beauty, yet preserving the shapes and contours of what lies beneath in a monochrome glow, at once veiling and outlining the distinction of all things. The silence of the grave. The telling silence of the empty tomb.
It is no surprise that we are so afraid of silence, especially as it points to that last and unknown greater silence. But for all its cold, it has its warmer moments, too. The moments of play and rest which snow affords to skiers and to children. The silence of a sleeping child. The silence of a monastery can be like this, at times, though it takes on other hues and flavors.
Jesus invited his followers, weary from their labors, to rest in him (Matthew 11:28-30), and called himself the Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12, Mark 2, Luke 6). He did not mean by this that he was Lord of the “day off.” Rather, he was referring to the seventh day of rest by which Genesis refers to the culmination of God’s creation. That creation is not finished yet. It is still ongoing, and we are part of it. Yet its final goal, and so our final goal, is not a cacophony of noisy activity. It is the silence of divine rest, the unmovable simplicity and stillness which belongs to God alone: the silence of the Void from which God’s Word spoke the infinite multiplicity of all things into creation; the silence of the Virgin Womb from which the infinite One himself entered into creation; and the silence of the empty tomb from which springs forth the perfecting water of infinite life.
Christians call the Bible God’s word, and with good reason. Yet it is so only by analogy to God’s Word with a capital “W”: the divine dabar in Hebrew or Logos in Greek. This Word by which God spoke all things into being is the same Word who for a time came to dwell or “set up camp” among us, as the Greek of the Prologue to St John’s Gospel puts it (John 1:14). By the return of Jesus, the Divine Word, to His speaker at the glorious Ascension, we too are lifted up on the Way to eternal life.
This Word of God is not something which can be “spoken” in human words. God has no larynx. His Word cannot be contained by sounds. The Word of God is born of rest, of peace, the silence of shalom. Elijah hears It not in the clamor of the earthquake or the crackling of fire, but in the still, small voice of calm (1 Kings 19:12). God’s Word calls us into being out of silence, and at the same time, silently, calls us to return to the silence from which we came. God’s Word speaks in a silence richer than words, written not in ink but in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, in the action of breaking bread and pouring wine.
In the silence, we seek meaning. In particular, we seek our own meaning, and so our identity. Cars, airplanes and online communication have made it possible to live further from our traditional communities of family, town and even nation than ever before, and as it has become possible, so it has become economically advantageous or even necessary. People have had to become highly mobile to feed and house their families. This has eroded our older loyalties and sources of shared meaning which constituted our local identities. We know our neighbors less and, hidden from the disapproving eyes of older generations by the Gyges’ rings of distant living and online anonymity, we can experiment with our identities however we please. Once, someone may have identified himself as the son or daughter of so-and-so, and be known readily enough by even such a limited designation, reflected in the patronymic surnames common to many cultures, from Atreides to Zlatkov. Now, though, with all our newfound flexibility and distance, the question arises more pressingly for us than it did for older generations: who, exactly, am I?
The nominalist turn of modernity has trained us to think that we can answer this question, as we answer all questions of meaning, by sheer assertion: by vocalization and verbosity. We understand language as our personal map of noises by which we can refer other people who happen to share the same series of grunts and gestures to all those external things which constitute reality. Anyone with the key, that is anyone who has learned the same code, can understand what we are saying; but essentially, we impose our meaning of reality, subject to popular consensus. Names for things are arbitrary codes, secrets into which other people are invited to the degree their proficiency in the code I am using allows. From here we come to think that we can, and possibly even should, define ourselves. It is up to me to define who I am, in every particular. Nothing is given, nothing inherited: I name myself. I am my own maker.
Heidegger, among others, showed the limitations of seeing words as a map onto an external reality. Take the word “hammer.” Now, in a philosophy textbook, the word “hammer” is going to be used to form logical propositions, such as “the hammer is on the table,” or “the hammer is made of rubber,” or “a hammer is a tool for hitting nails.” These can be empirically tested or disproven: they are either true or not. But, says Heidegger, this is not the primary use of the word “hammer.” People did not start saying “hammer” so they could describe what or where hammers are, or even what they are used for. Most likely, if someone says to you, “hammer,” what they mean is, “pass me the hammer.” Possibly, if the hammer is falling from an open window on the proverbial fourteenth floor, they might be saying, “watch out for the hammer.” In either case, the word “hammer” is a vocal substitute for pointing or gesturing at the hammer. It is not making any falsifiable claims about the hammer. The word is born from an action relating to an object. Both the action of pointing and the object of the hammer are themselves non-verbal. That is, they are silent. The word “hammer” is the vocalization of the silent.
Poetry offers another example of the limitations of a purely designatory understanding of language. Those limitations are especially apparent in translation. Novices in foreign languages often assume that one language is pretty much substitutable for another: they’re rival codes referring to the same “thing.” Once they become more advanced, they will realize the limits of this approach even in prose, as they discover words which are untranslatable or carry very different nuances from their closest equivalent in the target language. Yet in poetry, the gap between words begins to gape. Homer in English is not really Homer any more than Shakespeare in Sanskrit would really be Shakespeare – even between languages from the same Indo-European language family, too much is lost in translation. The gap widens even further if one is translating between, say, Indo-European languages, Semitic languages like Arabic and Hebrew, and the Ural-Altaic language of Japanese. When you get beyond hammers, you soon realize that the language one speaks is not just mapping out a reality: it encompasses and engenders in those who speak and think in it a specific conception of what reality is. This is why Jews are expected to learn Hebrew and Muslims Arabic. There is a sense that their scriptures would not really be scripture after the distortion of translating them into a different register of reality.
For those who seek the meaning of themselves and the wider world, this leaves a problem. The existence of multiple languages, which is to say a potentially infinite range of conceptions of reality, makes any “objective” understanding of it seem impossible. It leaves our attempts at defining any kind of meaning at all looking arbitrary. We are left unable to define anything at all, even ourselves. All knowledge becomes questionable, the very frameworks which underpin our thoughts and assumptions inherited by the lottery of our place of birth. Even our sensory perceptions are rendered unreliable, mediated as they are by the grammar hardwired into our minds. And who wired them? Why, exactly those socializing communities of identity from which we learnt our language, dialect and accent, our parents, towns and nations: all those influences from which modern people, inspired by the ideal of autonomy, seek further and further distance and dissolution.
The question of meaning is inevitably social. It is, therefore, inevitably noisy and verbose. Yet beneath this Babel of infinite languages rests the silent ocean from which all things came and to which all things will return. If we wish to follow the advice of the Delphic oracle and know ourselves, Platonists and Buddhists may agree that we will need first to learn the language of silence. For in silence, we do not impose meaning, but discover it. All our noise dulls us to the riches of its language.
 Translated in Augustine and Edmund Hill, Teaching Christianity: De Doctrina Christiana (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2007).