Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Place of Silence, and the Tragedy of Its Loss

In the modern world language is far from the world of silence. It springs from noise and vanishes in noise. Silence is today no longer an autonomous world of its own; it is simply the place into which noise has not yet penetrated. It is a mere interruption of the continuity of noise, like a technical hitch in the noise-machine—that is what silence is today: the momentary breakdown of noise. 

We no longer have definite silence and definite language, but simply words that are being spoken and words that have not yet been spoken—but these are present, too, standing around like tools that are not being used; they stand waiting there menacingly or boringly.

Max Picard, The World of Silence

Reflection – I’ve been periodically including bits and pieces of this luminous book on the blog lately. There is something deeply apt about reflecting on the need for silence and the poverty of language that does not come from silence, while writing on the noisy, clamorous, and garrulous world of social media.

More and more in my own life, I see what a prophetic woman Catherine Doherty was when she opened the first poustinia at Madonna House. Poustinia, for those unfamiliar with our MH ways, is a Russian word meaning ‘desert’, but which in the Russian spiritual tradition is a place—a room or a small cabin—where someone goes to be silent, to pray, to read the Scriptures and nothing else, to fast. In the life of the MH community, many of us go to poustinia one day a week, or every other week, or less frequently. A few of our members live in poustinia several days each week--a contemplative presence in the midst of this very active community.

In the 1960s, when the Second Vatican Council was opening, Catherine sensed that the greatest need for the Church and the world in years ahead would be silent, listening hearts, that in these years of revolutionary change in society and in the Church we would need to go into deep silence and allow God to shape our words and our hearts there.

Poustinia is precisely this place where silence becomes not a mere break in noise, not a mere pause for breath between our words, but a Place unto itself, a reality in itself filled with meaning and import.

I believe firmly that there is a greater need for poustinia in the world in 2014 than there ever has been. The technological revolution has created a world that is literally filled with noise, with words. Children today can grow up, if there parents choose to allow them, without virtually no silence, no empty space in their lives, as the constant hum and beep and swirl of electronic devices fills up every solitary second of our time.

The loss in this is calamitious. Interiority, depth of reflection, capacity to know and hear God, ability to create a unique word of one’s own—all washed away in the constant stream of information and entertainment coming to us through incessant social media and games.

Essentially what is lost is our humanity and its deepest expressions. We are reduced to the level of the animal, constantly responding to stimuli, driven by raw desires and instinct. Worse yet is our reduction to consumers, where everything and everyone is made into an object for our use, stripped of any transcendent personal value in the process. This is worse than animalistic; it is in truth demonic.

Meanwhile, silence beckons us. Poustinia, however we may find our way of expressing that, beckons us. A place, a way of being, that is so utterly simple: simply me, simply God, simply nothing else. And yet in that simplicity a whole world is restored to us—the world of real values and real personal engagement. The world where, in the words of W.H Auden, “Everything is a Thou and nothing is an It.” 

Technology tends to invert that so that everyone is an ‘it’ and never a ‘thou.’ The conversion to silence is one that I believe we all need to make, and the need for it may only grow more and more urgent in the years to come. May we all find our way to the world of silence and let it teach us what it has to teach.

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