Glory to God for All Things

The Language of Silence

prayer_ropeThe language of the heart is silence—not a bleak, empty silence, but a profound and meaningful silence that ceaselessly sings the glory of God.

Archimandrite Meletios Webber

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The language…is silence. I will violate this wonderful oxymoron by speaking about the silence. It is the inherent problem with all theology. We use words to speak about what is ineffable. When we speak best about such things we speak in contradictions and oxymorons – in riddles, enigmas, mysteries and paradox. For the truth of these things is not in the words but in the space between the words, the silence brought about by the contradiction.

It is said by the fathers that “silence is the language of heaven.” Fr. Meletios’ transference of the statement from heaven to the heart simply recognizes that the heart (in the sense in which he writes about it) is the place of heaven. Those who do not now know heaven have yet to find the place of the heart.

Finding the place of the heart is among the most difficult and essential parts of the Christian spiritual life. Those outside the Christian tradition may very well find such a place – we should not begrudge them – finding the place of the heart does no harm and may do much good – I leave this in God’s hands.

Webber (and Orthodox Tradition) notes that the mind, the place of discursive reasoning, emotion and the like, plays an important role in human existence, but should never have had an independent and governing role. Anyone who has ever noticed how completely undisciplined the mind is will understand what he means. The mind endlessly produces noise about almost anything, generating a stream of images and feelings that are more than useless. The noise of the mind, for some, can be a deeply distressing state of being.

The silence of the heart is not the silence of emptiness or a state of nothingness. The silence of the heart is the sound of fullness. It is silent because no word, no image is sufficient. Only silence can contain the uncontainable.

Vladimir Lossky, the 20th century theologian of the Russian exile, equated silence with Tradition. His thoughts are worth quoting at length. He begins by citing St. Ignatius of Antioch’s dictum: “He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence.”

The faculty of hearing the silence of Jesus, attributed by St. ignatius to those who in truth possess His word, echoes the reiterated appeal of Christ to His hearers: “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” The words of Revelation have then a margin of silence which cannot be picked up by the ears of those who are outside. St. Basil moves in the same direction when he says, in his passage on the traditions: “There is also a form of silence, namely the obscurity used by the Scripture, in order to make it difficult to gain understanding of the teachings, for the profit of readers.” This silence of the Scriptures could not be detached from them: it is transmitted by the Church with the words of the Revelation, as the very condition of their reception. If it could be opposed to the words (always on the horizontal plane where they express the revealed Truth), this silence which accompanies the words implies no kind of insufficiency or lack of fullness of the Revelation, nor the necessity to add to it anything whatever. It signifies that the revealed mystery, to be truly received as fullness, demands a conversion towards the vertical plane, in order that one may be able to “comprehend with all saints” not only what is the “breadth and length” of the Revelation, but also its “depth” and its “height” (Eph. 3:18)

At the point which we have reached, we can no longer oppose Scripture and Tradition, nor juxtapose them as two distinct realities. We must, however, distinguish them, the better to seize their indivisible unity, which lends to the Revelation given to the Church its character of fullness. If the Scriptures and all that the Church can produce in words written or pronounced, in images or in symbols liturgical or otherwise, represent the differing modes of expression of the Truth, Tradition is the unique mode of receiving it. We say specifically unique mode, and not uniform mode, for to Tradition in its pure notion there belongs nothing formal. It does not impose on human consciousness by formal guarantees of the truths of faith, but gives access to the discovery of their inner evidence. It is not the content of Revelation, but the light that reveals it; it is not the word, but the living breath which makes the word heard at the same time as the silence from which it came; it is not the Truth, but a communication of the Spirit of Truth, ouside which the Truth cannot be received…. The pure notion of Tradition can then be defined by saying that it is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, communicating to each member of the Body of Christ the faculty of hearing, of receiving, of knowing the Truth in the Light which belongs to it, and not according to the light of human reason.

Silence is thus the necessary condition to hear the fullness of the word – and this silence is the Tradition.

Such treatments of mystical theology (as Lossky’s most famous work was entitled) demonstrate how central Tradition is to Orthodoxy and why it is so much more than merely “doing what’s always been done.” “What has always been done,” is correct if, and only if, we understand that what has always been done is the silence in which the word is spoken – and not just any silence – but that silence which is the word of Jesus.

As Lossky would note, the silence which is the language of the heart, is no mere natural silence (and thus not truly accessible to the non-believer), but an inherent part of the word of Jesus. The silence of the word of Jesus speaks to the silence of the heart, even becomes the silence of the heart: “Deep calls unto deep” (Psalm 42:7). The silence of the heart becomes that necessary condition for hearing the word of Jesus, which is nothing other than salvation.

4 Responses to “The Language of Silence”

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  1. Michael Bauman says:

    It is the silence not of absence, but the presence of life.

  2. Karen says:

    Yes, it is a silence pregnant with Meaning.

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