Words that merely come from other words are hard and aggressive. Such words are also lonely, and a great part of the melancholy in the world today is due to the fact that man has made words lonely by separating them from silence.
This repudiation of silence is a factor of human guilt, and the melancholy in the world is the outward expression of that guilt. Language is surrounded by the dark rim of melancholy, no longer by the rim of silence.
Silence is present in language, therefore, even after language has arisen out of silence. The world of language is built over and above the world of silence. Language can only enjoy security as it moves about freely in words and ideas in so far as the broad world of silence is stretched out below. From the breadth of silence language learns to achieve its own breadth. Silence is for language what the net stretched out taut below him is for the tightrope walker.
Max Picard, The World of Silence
Reflection – I wanted to return to this book, which I had blogged about a while back. This really flows out of yesterday’s post, in which I decried the level of anger and vitriol in so much of our public discourse today, and particularly in the discourse that occurs online, even among Catholics and other Christians who really should know better.
Yesterday I didn’t want to just add my angry voice to the din, so connected all of this to Teresa of Avila’s famous prayer ‘Let nothing disturb thee.’ I believe that the degrading of our public discourse into polarized anger and name calling, etc., bespeaks of a loss of interiority, a spiritual malady that ultimately has little to do with the issues of the day and more to do with a loss of what is to be our true focus and priority—God and our communion with Him.
Picard speaks here of this, masterfully linking the degradation of speech and discourse to the loss of silence. His words here are so clear that I hardly know what to add to them (the whole book is like that – luminous thoughts flowing one after the other like a clear stream of insight and truth).
Silence as the ‘net’ of tightrope walking language, words becoming harsh and aggressive when they only come from other words, the loneliness of words that do not come out of silence, the melancholy of the world that is full of such words.
We really do have to take this to heart—his insights ring so very true, and the decades since he wrote this book have only amplified and confirmed the truth of his insights.
So, silence. Where is silence in our lives? Do we find it; can we? We all know there are people in situations where silence is not going to happen much. Mothers with lots of small children are not going to have too many silent moments. But even there—I always think of a friend of mine, homeschooling mother of a large brood, who would have a ‘silent reading’ period in her daily curriculum. The older kids had their books, the little ones would look at picture books or color, the baby would (hopefully) be napping, and silence would reign for a period in this large and normally noisy Catholic family.
In other words… it’s possible. And for those of us not surrounded by toddlers, it is certainly possible to carve out spaces for silence in our days. We just have to want to do it, and make the necessary arrangements. We can indeed decide to surround our language and our noise with the great rim of silence, and even in our busyness to cultivate inner silence, a interior disposition of listening and receptivity, non-judgment and contemplation.
This is that ‘disciple’s tongue, so that I may know how to respond to the weary’ that Isaiah 50 writes of. Language born in the womb of silence, language that comes only slowly and with great care from a deep well of repose—ultimately, from this whole business of ‘Let nothing disturb thee… all things are passing… God never changes’ that Teresa of Avila wrote of.
We really do need this, more and more urgently all the time. When Catherine Doherty began to establish poustinias in the 1960s she was truly prophetic, seeing that the lack of silence was in fact the deepest poverty of all in our affluent society. And her final book—literally her last word in a lifetime filled with words and language—was on the silence of God as the wellspring of all words and all love.
So there we are—what else is there to say? Without silence, listening, peace of spirit, our words are clamorous, empty, vain, angry, and ultimately fruitless. And if we truly are lacking that inner peace, perhaps it is better for us to remain silent rather than crowd the world with our fruitless speech.