This post is a continuation of a series written by Srs Jennii and Joanna on Henri Nouwen’s book, The Way of The Heart. For a general introduction to our project, click here.
I found this chapter hard to relate to than the previous one, which probably comes as no surprise to some people. However it wasn’t just the diverse and complex relationship me and silence have, it was more that I found it hard to understand how the points made about silence in this book can be worked into a way of life that is still compatible with the practicalities of the different lifestyles of this day. Not everyone is called into religious communities, and even less to trappist monasteries, so the call for complete silence in this day isn’t as prevalent.
However some of the points I could relate to, some I disagree with or have misunderstood but others I can see how they are important. I think it is so important for each and everyone one of us to have some regular period of silence where we can just be with God, where we can process and address anything that is weighing on our hearts and where we can offer them to God, but in our society silence is difficult, people run from silence, they distract themselves for it is in this silence we find our truest self. ‘Silence completes and intensifies solitude.’ This chapter opens with the account of the Roman educator, Arsenius, who left his status and wealth for solitude and upon praying to the Lord to be lead in the way of salvation heard a voice calling him to be silent. ‘Silence is the way to make solitude a reality.’ Arsenius is quoted to have said ‘I have often repented of having spoken, but never of having remained silent.’ I understand the point that is being made here, that quite often we say the wrong things, or we use our words to hurt people in the heat of the moment. However, I personally regret some of the times I didn’t speak up, I feel that if we see injustice in this world we are called to speak up, to shed light onto it; for me, the fathers of the church would have done us and themselves a disservice if they hadn’t wrote, spoke or taught. Think of what may have happened if the apologists and defenders of our faith had never defended our faith and had remained silent in the face of persecution. This is where my alignment with this book stops, where as silence is being held as this remarkable quality which we should always strive for, I see it in the same way I see everything else: there is a time and place for silence and a time and place for words.
In this central section of the book, Henri Nouwen makes a case for silence as a spiritual practice, and the practical part of solitude. In words, especially spoken words, he sees the potential for evil, and finds examples from the saints and desert fathers and mothers of advocates for silence.
Most of the examples Nouwen draws from advocate literal silence, the silence of the hermit, but Nouwen also advocates a figurative silence, understanding that social isolation is not a reality for most Christians. This silence consists primarily of silent, wordless prayer, where the petitioner makes mental space to listen to God. The nature of this silence means that it challenges description, because to be figuratively silent is to reject words, and the noise of constant language.
The noise of language was a preoccupation for me in my time studying poetry. There are as many ways of taking a language apart as there are linguists and etymologists, poets and philosophers, but none of them make a language quieter. How is a word loud? Firstly, there is the soundwave, the physical effect of the sound, the opposite of (literal) silence. But each word is also a network of associations, which resound when the word is written or uttered. For instance, the word ‘scarlet’. The first association, of course, is ‘red’, and with that thought – one word roughly synonymous to another – we hear other synonyms and close associations. Crimson. Blood-red. Ochre. We may also hear other connotations of the word – I hear ‘the scarlet pimpernel’, ‘scarlet fever’,and am also reminded of all the people I have known called Scarlet. In the sound of the word I hear other words – ‘scar’ jumps out, and then rhymes: partlet, harlot, starlet. And it carries linguistic baggage that we may or may not be aware of, but which we pass on every time we use that word, such as its etymological roots (Latin via medieval French). And every use of the word scarlet is connected, meaning is passed from speaker to speaker. I can fully understand the assertion that even our simplest use of language is almost violently loud. Language forces definition and association: it is a reasonable argument that at some stage in our search for God, this might become spiritually restrictive.
And yet I find myself uncomfortable with Nouwen’s evocation of silence as anti-word. My experience of the two has been of a creative relationship between them as opposing sides of a coin. In 2016 I wrote a collection of devotional poetry for my university studies, exploring how through poetry – through words – I could reach out to God. It wasn’t a collection of beautiful poems about God being perfect; it wasn’t a set of instructions for prayer; it was a sequence of broken attempts to identify the absence of faith in myself and the presence of God beside me. It struck me that in the last few poems the conclusion I was reaching for (although it wasn’t evident to me at the time) was a longing for silence; in the silence at the end of the poem, I found God waiting for me. But that silence wasn’t antithetical to speech. In my research I found theologies of the word, inspired principally by the logos of John’s Gospel. I wrote about the place where poetry and prayer meet, and discovered a fundamental belief in the word, written and spoken, as a place where we encounter the divine.
Despite our differences, I find I am still drawn to the deep silence that Nouwen evokes as a firm part of solitude. But silence should not be sought from fear of speaking becoming sinful, as Nouwen suggests. I often keep silent because I am not yet able to discipline myself in my speaking, and in casual conversation find it easy to say things that I later regret. But the best silence – and here I think Nouwen and I are in complete agreement – is not the absence of our words, but the presence of God’s, and that makes much of what we have to say unnecessary. Where we do speak, in the knowledge of God’s spirit, our words are not ours.
Our wordy world
Our world today is full of noise. ‘Words softly whispered, loudly proclaimed or angrily screamed; words spoken, recited or sung; words on records, in books, on walls, or in the sky; words in many sounds, many colours, or many forms….’ I do find it amusing that it is not just spoken word that this chapter is pervading to but all forms of word, and I find it ironic that I am now sat writing words, about a book of words in which the chapter addresses why we should be silent and not use words. All the words we see, hear and think each day are just distractions; can you sit in complete silence and stillness? No background music, nothing to see, a complete void? Or would that make you uncomfortable?
These days we are subjected to adverts everywhere, we hear them, we see them, we cannot get away, we are told what to think, what to wear, what to say, what to eat, what to drink, we don’t need to think for ourselves anymore, it’s all done for us. This maybe a reason why we find silence so uncomfortable, because we are not used to just being. But this onslaught of words has ‘made us lose confidence in words’. How many times do we excuse people or make excuses for ourselves saying ‘they are just words’? The function of the words has been lost, our way of communicating is lost.
The book goes on to look at theological education stating that ‘the goal of theological education [is] to bring us closer to the Lord our God so that we may be more faithful to the great commandment to love him with all our heart’ As in theological education we get to know Our God better and we begin to cultivate our personal relationship with Him, as how can we say we love Him if we never get to know Him? ‘Seminaries and divinity schools must lead theology students into an ever-growing communion with God, with each other and with their fellow human beings.’ For how can we know and love God without knowing and loving His creation? This theological education brings us closer to thinking with the mind of Christ, and seeing with His eyes, ‘so that our way of praying and believing will be one.’ And I agree that a lot of this growth is done in silence. However I also still believe that there is a time for community and group reflection on these ideas which would require some discussion and a sort of peer system of supporting, encouraging and growing together, as our relationship with God is called to yes be a personal and private one but also a corporate and public one as well. It is private in the way that each persons relationship with God is entirely individual and there are aspects of it which will be incredibly personal to each of us, but there is also that aspect of showing this relationship to the world, showing people the good things that can be achieved through it, showing them how it makes us feel and this doesn’t have to be a great public proclamation but at the same time we shouldn’t be ashamed to show it. If we take scripture to guide us on this :“Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a lamp stand and it gives light to the whole house.’ Matthew 5:15. This book then goes on to challenge what is actually being taught at seminaries, stating that we ‘find ourselves entangled in such a complex network of discussions, debates and arguments about God and “God-issues” that a simple conversation with God or a simple presence to God has become practically impossible.’ This I once again disagree with in some ways, but in the aspect that these discussions are not just taking place in seminaries but throughout all the church, and while I do agree they are taking up a lot of time and creating a lot of tensions, I don’t see them taking away from prayer life; it is up to the individual to develop their own discipline there. Furthermore, when speaking about God, how can one speak with conviction unless we truly believe what we are saying, and how can we truly know what we are saying about God unless we spend that time getting to know him? As such, I don’t see these as mutual exclusive but rather as two sides of the same coin.
But why do we study and speak about such things? Well, to be an effective witness: ‘The word of God is born out of the eternal silence of God, and it is to this Word out of silence that we want to be witnesses.’ This sums up what I have been trying to say throughout this section: that silence is important as in the beginning there was a vast nothingness, and that is where God was, so if we want to get to know God we must enter into this nothingness as fully as we can through silence, and yet the Word also came out of the Silence, to bring people to the Silence to show them to way, so we to must take this example and use our mouths to speak His words to bring people to Him.
The beginning of this chapter offers an insight from the Chuang Tzu, a Taoist philosopher, in which he says ‘the purpose of a fish trap is to catch fish, when the fish is caught the trap is forgotten. The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits. When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten. The purpose of words is to convey Ideas. When the ideas are grasped the words are forgotten. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to.’ I think this perfectly sums up this idea of silence, however, how can this man pass on the ideas he has grasped without communicating them? If he forgets words there is no use in talking to him. Yes, I believe that once an idea is grasped we no longer need to use words for ourselves but we do need to use them for others to pass these findings on. Nouwen uses this to give an understanding into the minds of the desert fathers as ‘For them, the word is the instrument of the present world and silence is the mystery of the future world’. Yes, we should all be looking to the future but I don’t think we should disregard the present as it is through our actions in the present that we shape our futures. ‘If a word is to bear fruit it must be spoken from the future world into the present world.’ This echoes my statement as we should all be conscious of how our actions and words will affect the future and the consequences thereof. So how do we process this idea of speaking from the future? Well we must take time to meditate and pray about what we are called to do, how we should react and listen to what we hear or feel to be the answer coming from God. ‘The Desert Fathers therefore considered their going into the silence of the desert’ where they could pray and meditate and be in constant conversation with God ‘to be the first step into the future World. From that world their words could bear fruit, because there they could be filled with the power of God’s silence.’ It seems to me that as this chapter builds and progresses there is a building upon what is meant by silence, it is not just simple a permanent state to be in, but a tool to focus our minds, on the what the future may hold, on what God’s plan for the world may be and also what God’s plan for us may be. It’s providing the space we need to meet God in the nothingness, where we strip away all our ideas and our words so that we can hear and be rebuilt with God’s ideas and God’s words. I find this an interesting idea when compared with an opening that some preachers use to begin their sermons ‘May I speak in the name of the Living God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’ Or ‘let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer’ the second of these introductions coming from the Psalm (Ps. 19:14) these two sentences do more than just announce to the congregation that the sermon is about to begin, they also remind the preacher who it is they are speaking in place of, which when taken into the heart of the preacher can actually be quite intimidating, I know the first time I preached I used the former as a way of introduction, and just saying it, I felt an indescribable pressure of the severity of what I was about to do which was quickly overcome, which bring me to my third point, they act as a prayer, the preacher is asking God to guide what they say, to place His words into their mouth, so maybe this is a good idea to start saying when coming to sit down to write a sermon.
As I said the chapter seems to be progressing this idea of silence and building on it. At first just the idea of silence was presented and then how it should be used and why is present and this structure goes to reflect the aspects of silence, that we can distinguish from the sayings of the Desert Fathers ‘All of them deepen and strengthen the central idea that silence is the mystery of the future world. First silence makes us pilgrims.’ A pilgrimage is basically a journey of some significance, and although there are many site of pilgrimage around the world, all of which offer their own systems of helping with the spiritual journey and offering unique additions to the experience, pilgrimage can actually be done without leaving one’s own home, it can be a journey into one’s own faith and beliefs, and there are many books and resources out there that can help deepen ones faith, I personally would suggest the writing of the church fathers but everyone is different and everyone will find something out there that helps them.
‘Secondly, Silence guards the fire within.’ Silence helps to fame the flames that are built in solitude, it provides the space to take our solitude with us where ever we go, and help to prevent us backsliding. ‘Thirdly, silence teaches us to speak.’ Only through silence can we hear God’s words, in our busy world it is so easy to become distracted, but through silence we focus on our relationship with God and He can break through the noise so that we can be guided on what to say, like how a child learns to understand words and to listen before they learn to talk, only through hearing the words the people they come into contact with say do they learn them. The chapter then goes on to address these three ideas in more detail.
Silence makes us pilgrims
This section opens with two quotes, one from Abba Tithoes: ‘Pilgrimage means that a man should control his tongue.’ And then a second, from which the source is not given, ‘peregrinatio est tacere’. The English is given here as to be ‘to be on pilgrimage is to be silent’. I do agree with both of these as most group pilgrimages will be silent retreats, but there are some that are not silent and some that combine the two, with silence in the mornings, and tan individual choice to continue it in the afternoons. I find a time for both works best for me as it gives the time for fellowship as well, and also allows time for the groups to discuss the ideas that they are presented with. This section then goes on to give various scriptural examples of why silence is important most linking to the idea that speaking leads to sin ‘this connection is clearly expressed by the apostle James: “…every one of us does something wrong over and over again; the only man who could reach perfection would be someone who never said anything wrong – he would be able to control every part of himself” (James 3:2)’ this does not explicitly say that to speak is to sin but rather that speaking without sinning is hard, so the best way to remain untouched by sin is to remain silent. Nouwen then focuses on Saint Benedict and his rule, the rule that we follow the spirit of in the Holywell community, as he states ‘St. Benedict, the father of the monastic life in the west and the patron saint of Europe, puts great emphasis on silence in his rule.’ He does, the very first word in his rule is “Listen” ‘he quotes the Psalmist who says, “I will keep a muzzle on my mouth… I will watch how I behave and not let my tongue lead me into sin” (Psalm 39:1)’ this is not the only Psalm to suggest this idea, Psalm 51 states “O Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise”(psalm 51:15) this verse of the psalms is used frequently, it’s used at the start of Vigils which is the first monastic office of the day, the idea is that the first words out of our mouth each day is a prayer of sorts that God may give us what we need and the words to speak and in return we shall thank Him, it is also used at evensong, once again at the beginning. ‘St. Benedict not only warns his brothers against evil talk, but also tells them to avoid good, holy, edifying words’ which may seem strange as sure good words can build people upon when they are feeling down however ‘it is written in the book of Proverbs, “A flood of words is never without its faults” (Proverbs 10:19)’ so there are many examples of holding ones tongue to be found in scripture and that is because ‘Speaking is dangerous and easily leads us away from the right path’. So how are we to know when we have said enough or when we have said too much? Jesus himself gives us an answer to this “But I say to you, do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is His footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’; anything more than this comes from evil.” (Matthew 5:34-37) so we are given the instruction here to keep our words as short as possible. Nouwen then goes on to present a theory as to why it is speech is thought to lead to sin: ‘speaking gets us involved in the affairs of the world, and it is very hard to be involved without becoming entangled in and polluted by the world.’ I can see what is trying to be portrayed here, but I would also like to point out he says ‘very hard’ not impossible, and we are called to be in the world but not of the world, but we must be present in the world in order to be Christ representatives on earth. We must have some level of engagement with the world if we are going to be effective witnesses and evangelist, and as I hope that my future holds being ordained to the diaconate, that means I am to become “the bridge” between the world and the church, to encompass the incarnation ministry of Christ the servant.
Nouwen then goes on to say how we use too many words and the words we use don’t change anything. The irony here is that the way he chooses to express this idea is very broad and repetitive, a mass of words most of which are not needed, as he just expresses the same idea with different words. One of the ways he expresses it is with the question ‘How seldom have long talks proved to be good and fruitful?’ I agree sometimes when people go on and on you switch off, and then their words are wasted, but then there are times when long conversations are exactly what’s needed and can be fruitful. There are some great speakers in the Christian community such as Bishop Rowan Williams, Bishop Dominic Walker OGS or the church fathers; a lot of their writings are actually sermons they gave. Also many pilgrimages or retreats will be lead by someone and this person will often give talks on particular topics and they may be long or short but they can provide so much insight.
He ends this first section as he started it with the Latin quote ‘Peregrinatio est tacere’ which this time the English translation is given as ‘to be silent keeps us pilgrims’ which is similar to the start but slightly different with a slightly different inference. This highlights one of the greatest problems with our words, we cannot effectively translate them between languages to mean exactly the same, therefore a single phrase can have many translations which all slightly alter the meaning – just look at how many translations of the bible there are and how different a single sentence can be.
This section seems to echo a quote attributed to St. Francis: “preach the Gospel everywhere, when necessary use words.” This quote is used to show that we should live the Gospel and show it in our lives not just speak it, however it does not say never speak, but when necessary speak so from that we can take that there is a time for words.
Silence Guards the Fire within
Nouwen says that this second meaning of silence is a more positive meaning, however I don’t see the first meaning as being negative, or less positive than this one. To be a pilgrim is not a negative thing, it is the constant study and development of the relationship with God; I wouldn’t say that it was more positive than the second reason. They are equal as is the third (‘silence teaches us to speak’). They are separate aspects that have their own value and impart uniquely into the relationship we have with God. I can see why this is inferred when reading on, as God Himself is brought into this reason as the motivating factor. ‘Silence guards the inner heat of religious emotions. This inner heat is the life of the Holy Spirit within us.’ So for this reasoning alone one could give preference to this aspect of development through silence. However, I believe that our preparation and desire to know God is just as important as Gods desire to know us: relationships have to be two-sided.
Nouwen then offers us a quote from St. Diadochus which is rather substantial and makes the point that if one keeps breaking their physical silence, then that in turn has an effect on their inner silence of their heart. I disagree in part as with my previous points, things aren’t always as black and white as that; for if we keep our physical silence all the time how may we portray the silence in our hearts to others? I do agree that we need that silence in our hearts and I agree to the principle being put forward which does ‘go against the grain of our contemporary life-style, in which “sharing” has become one of the greatest virtues. We have been made to believe that our feelings, emotions and even the inner stirrings of our soul have to be shared with others…let us at least raise the question of whether our lavish ways of sharing or not more compulsive than virtuous.’ Yes, I believe that in this day and age, especially with social media, there is a culture of over sharing. However I think that as Christians need to be walking alongside each other and those not yet aware that they are part of this family and we cannot walk alongside each other effetely if we are not open to sharing in each other’s pains and sorrows as well as joys and celebrations. Empathy is one of our greatest gifts. Also, Christ came to earth not just to wipe away our sins but to shatter the hold sin had on us by sharing in our humanity, our feelings and our emotions. If our feeling and emotions are worthy to be shared with God then surely they are worthy to be shared with others.
Nouwen then goes on to say: ‘it is no wonder that many ministers have become burnt-out cases, people who say many words and share many experiences, but in whom the fire of God’s Spirit has died…’ I agree that many clerics are becoming burnt out; however I don’t think this is because they are speaking and sharing experiences, I think it has more to do with the amount of meetings and other work they add on to themselves on top of their ecclesiastical duties. And this phrase ‘in whom the fire of God’s Spirit has died’ – surely being there for others, welcoming them, preaching and so forth is part of their ministry, in which the spirit was called down upon them at their ordination and so is not what would be killing the spirit – over exerting themselves with countless meetings is more likely.
Nouwen comments ‘As ministers our greatest temptation is toward too many words. They weaken our faith and make us luke-warm. But silence is a sacred discipline, a guard of the Holy Spirit.’ This instantly made me recall many a sermon which had gone on for a conceivably long time, the ones in which a cautionary glance at the congregation can tell you that the vast majority have switched off. Too many words can be dangerous and make people feel as though they are being lectured or called out, but too little and people may not necessarily understand the lessons they read in the Bible. It’s a delicate balance, but one that can be damaging if it swings too far one way or the other.
Silence teaches us to speak
‘A word with power is a word that comes out of silence.’ I agree with this, it’s the words we speak when we are free from distraction that echo our hearts and the workings of God with us, more so than words formed by the influence of pop culture and other peoples influence on us.
In this section Nouwen speaks in more detail about the type of silence we must strive for. This productive and living silence is ‘not emptiness and absence, but fullness and presence, not the human silence of embarrassment, shame or guilt, but the divine silence in which love rests secure.’ Silence for the sake of silence and nothingness will achieve exactly that, nothingness, but a silence as a journey into God’s grace will produce God’s grace in return. ‘Here we can glimpse the great mystery in which we participate through silence and the Word, the mystery of God’s own speaking. Out of his eternal silence God spoke the Word, and through this Word created and recreated the world.’ God spoke everything into existence, you only have to read the opening of Genesis to see how God said “let there be…” and it was done. Then he made His Word into flesh, in the form of our Saviour Jesus Christ, of whom we are told, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5) What I personally take from this section of the Gospel according to St. John is that if we speak with the words that come from God, nothing evil can come from that as in verses four and five we hear: ‘In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Nouwen then goes on to talk about how silence isn’t necessarily a permanent physicality but the silence of our hearts can be passed on through our words. ‘Words only create communion and thus new life when they embody the silence from which they emerge…when the word calls forth the healing and restoring stillness of its own silence, few words are needed: much can be said without much being spoken.’ This again links into the quote from St. Francis mention earlier.
Sr Joanna: What part does silence play in your life? Do you find words distracting, or do they help you pray effectively? In the next chapter of this blog, we’ll be looking at some examples of how silence can be used in ministry, and offering our final reflections before moving on to look at Henri Nouwen’s thoughts on prayer.