The Sounds of Silence

IMG_0528It is said that “silence is the language of the world to come.” We are also told that those who are in the grave (sheol) cannot offer praise. Hades is the land of the silent. Thus we have the paradox of the joyful silence of the age to come and sorrowful silence that can say nothing.

It seems the mystery lies in the nature of the silence. There is a silence that comes from fullness – a silence because there are no words that are sufficient. There is also a silence that comes from emptiness – when words fall back on themselves and never rise to the level of expression.

In the course of our lives we probably experience something of both forms of silence. I have known joy too great to be spoken and grief like an “emotional black hole” that has no words. I prefer the joy.

St. Ignatius of Antioch said, “He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence” (Eph. XV). Vladimir Lossky comments on this that it is the necessary condition for hearing the Scriptures when they are properly transmitted in the Tradition. It is simply a way of saying that the Scriptures say more than can be heard without the Spirit dwelling in us. 

In a strange way we live in a world that is hungry for silence – not for the empty silence that grinds everything beneath it. We hunger for a silence that is capable of bearing the fullness of the Word – a silence that is filled with the praise and joy of God.

I remember well that torrent of words and thoughts that swirled around my journey to Orthodoxy. Not only were there the myriad questions and halting debates – the words served as a substitute for action – a noisy hesitation. I also remember the silence of submission when words came to an end and hesitation yielded to God. I have to be honest and say that the condition of my heart was such that these occasions were repetitive. The silence of surrender was frequently followed by another torrent of words only to end again in silence. 

I suspect that my life will continue in that model until it finds its final submission. Words flow until they finally meet their rest in the silence in which the Word reposes. It is a silence that is embraced – not for love of the silence but for love of the Word. It is the silence of the word of Jesus.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


Comments

13 responses to “The Sounds of Silence”

  1. Ezekiel Avatar
    Ezekiel

    Father, Bless!

    Your words regarding silence in your journey home parallell my experience. In fact, I still find those times when the “words” want to flow and amass in this dialog or that ….

    and then there are the times of peaceful stillness, of silence — no spoken word mars that blessed silence.

    Even when tempted to respond to this or that on some blogs, I find that I choose silence, prayer, rather than rhetorical devices.

    Is this not often the way of the Fathers, the saints?

    Thanks again for the post …

  2. coffeezombie Avatar
    coffeezombie

    I have found, in myself, an interesting correlation. When I pray more, I speak less, and when I pray less, I speak more.

    It seems when I have allowed myself to become lax in the spiritual life, and wandered away from God to some extent, my instinct is to attempt to fill the void with many words. However, when I repent and return to God, I begin to sense the emptiness of all my words, and I no longer have an appetite for debating and discussion.

  3. fatherstephen Avatar

    It is frequently the way of the fathers. Vladimir Lossky has an essay entitled Tradition and Traditions in which the role of silence is treated more fully than anywhere I have seen. It can be found (though it can be found elsewhere as well) as an introductory essay in the Meaning of Icons that he did with Ouspensky.

    Father Stephen +

  4. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Dear Father, bless! I find myself struggling with Silence as a word for the fullness of the Word that is beyond words. Too often I hear that word, and think of the wall of stoney silence I sometimes encounter when I first attempt prayer and my heart is not yet receptive because of the competing and distracting thoughts that bombard. I have to be reminded that the Silence that is the fullness of God is pregnant with meaning, and its meaning is love. Thank you for another helpful post.

    Good observation, coffeezonbie. I find that’s true for me as well. Only I don’t necessarily talk more myself; I just find myself turning on chatter from somewhere else–the blogosphere is a real temptation that way sometimes and so is the radio or TV.

  5. November In My Soul Avatar

    I also remember the silence that came when, “words came to an end and hesitation yielded to God.” It was the ceasing of struggle, the death of doubt, the calm assurance of truth. It is there always unassailable by the cacophony of the everydayness.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    My arm’s too short to box with God. There is the silence of exhaustion.

  7. Marsha Avatar
    Marsha

    coffeezombie, I have also found that to be true…when I talk more, I usually need to shut up and pray more!

  8. Kevin Isaac Avatar
    Kevin Isaac

    Some years ago, when my deep unrest in the evangelical church was approaching a conscious and inescapable awareness, I came across the following quote:

    “Silences are the only scraps of Christianity we have left.”

    It hit me like an indictment.

    (I seem to remember it was attributed to Kierkegard, but not certain and I haven’t been able to locate it since. )

    My hunger for these “scraps” of silence in worship was only realized in Orthodoxy and the words of the liturgy, where it is present not merely in “scraps” but as a feast, the silence that is:
    “the language of the world to come” … “the silence that comes from fullness…”

    Not to say too much… 😉

  9. Dharmashaiva Avatar

    “Silence is a great power in our unseen warfare and a sure hope of gaining victory. Silence is much beloved of him, who does not rely on himself but trusts in God alone. It is the guardian of holy prayer and a miraculous helper in the practice of virtues; it is also a sign of spiritual wisdom. St. Isaac says: ‘guarding your tongue [and ears] not only makes your mind rise to God, but also gives great hidden power to perform visible actions, done by the body. If silence is practised with knowledge, it also brings enlightenment in hidden doing’ (ch. 31 in Russian edition). In another place he praises it thus: ‘If you pile up on one side of the scales all the works demanded by ascetic life, and on the other side — silence, you will find that the latter outweighs the former. Many good counsels have been given us, but if a man embraces silence, to follow them will become superfluous’ (ch. 41). In yet another place he calls silence ‘the mystery of the life to come; whereas words are the instruments of this world’ (ch. 42). St. Barsanuphius places it above preaching the word of God, saying: ‘If you are just on the very point of preaching, know that silence is more worthy of wonder and glory.’ Thus, although one man ‘holdeth his tongue because he hath not to answer’, another ‘keepeth silence, knowing his time’ (Ecclesiasticus xx.6), yet another for some other reasons, ‘for the sake of human glory, or out of zeal for this virtue of silence, or because he secretly communes with God in his heart and does not want the attention of this mind to be distracted from it’ (St. Isaac, ch. 76). It can be said in general that a man, who keepeth silence, is found wise and of good sense (Ecclesiasticus xx.5).”

    _Unseen Warfare_, Revised by Theophan the Recluse, 1987, 146-147.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    What can I say? Father Stephen +

  11. Dale Avatar
    Dale

    My most precious moments are those all too few times when I am able to sit in silence, to finally even manage to quiet my thoughts — thinking of nothing it seems. As corny as it might sound, it seems to me that it is those times when I can best feel the gentle presence of the Lord. Perhaps it is because my thoughts are of such an inconsequential and immature sort that they must be quieted for me to hear God. I’m sorry I can’t describe the feeling better. Does that sound silly?

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