09 November 2010

The Contradictions of Silence

By Noreen Mackey
My Beloved, the mountains, the solitary wooded valleys,
The strange islands, the sonorous rivers,
The whisper of the amorous breezes.

The tranquil night, at the time of the rising of the dawn,
The silent music, the sounding solitude, the supper that recreates and enkindles love.
--St John of the Cross
In the verses above, John of the Cross speaks – seemingly in contradiction – of a solitude that is full of echoes, of a music that cannot be heard. Silence is itself a contradiction. It is at once absence and presence; the path to a place, and the place itself. It is the absence of noise, but it is never empty. The strange fullness of silence alarms us, and it is because its fullness is at times so unbearable that we fill it with noise instead.
The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread,
said Pascal. Yet it is in silence that we hear the things that really matter. Deep silence allows us to listen to our own heart, the place where God speaks to us, the place where God dwells.

In the world of today, the taste for silence is gradually becoming lost and with it, the wisdom of the ages. Today, our ears are assaulted by noise wherever we turn. Travelling to work each morning on the bus, we are surrounded by the by the whirring and beat of personal stereos, the ringing and bleating of mobile phones, the endlessly repeated "Hallo? I’m on the bus!" as commuters impart this invaluable piece of information to their friends and relations listening on their own mobile phones somewhere else. If we go into a shop or café during our lunch break, a radio or CD will invariably be playing full blast over strategically located speakers. Even our churches are no longer the places of prayerful silence they once were, and, of course, the voice of the television is heard throughout our land.
Elizabeth was faithful to the practice of silence, both exterior and interior, from the earliest days of her Carmelite life. A week after her entrance, filling out a questionnaire during community recreation, she wrote that her favourite point of the Carmelite Rule was silence. She found that silence above all in her cell, that little room which to a Carmelite is bedroom, study and oratory.
I love above all the hours of Great Silence, and it’s during one of those that I am writing to you. Imagine your Elizabeth in the little cell she loves so much; it’s our sanctuary, it’s for Him and me alone. You can imagine what wonderful hours I spend there with my Beloved....

Yet that silence was full of activity – not her own, certainly, but that of her Beloved. In her prayer to the Trinity, written when she was 24 years of age, she asks for the grace to forget herself entirely so that she might live in God "still and peaceful as if my soul were already in eternity". Why? So that she might "pass my life listening to You, become wholly docile, that I may learn all from You." Silence was the school where the Holy Spirit taught her, the fruits of which can be seen in the notes of her Last Retreat.

How very necessary that beautiful interior unity is for those who want to live the life of the blessed here below", her retreat notes continue. "I think that must be what Jesus meant when he spoke to Mary Magdalene of the ‘one thing necessary’. How well that great saint understood this! The eyes of her soul enlightened by faith, recognised God behind the veil of his humanity, and, in silence and in the unity of her powers, she listened to the word that he spoke to her.

Ultimately, the interior silence in which she lived became a great space in which she moved throughout the minutiae of her daily life, and in which she saw with ever greater clarity, eternal vistas. "Christ wishes to be himself my peace so that nothing can ever distract me or force me to leave the invincible fortress of holy recollection," she wrote in her retreat notes. Silence had now become a Person. She no longer needed to "practice" silence; it was her life force, the God in which she lived, moved and had her being. Her Beloved had become her silent music.
[The Carmelite] is hungry for silence and prayer that she may always listen to Him and penetrate more deeply into His infinite Being" wrote Elizabeth. "She identifies herself with Him whom she loves, she finds Him everywhere. She sees Him shining through everything. She belongs to Him alone, and trusts completely in His loving and faithful providence. Is that not heaven on earth?