October 21, 2020

Only In Silence, The Word

There are many proverbs and sayings we’ve all heard:

“Speech is silver, silence is golden.”

“Better to say nothing and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

“Empty vessels make the most sound.”

“Still waters run deep.”

And of course, the book of Proverbs in the Bible has much advice about the conduct of the fool and the wise man when it comes to speech and silence.

I have always remembered, from the time I first read it, the little verse that starts off Ursula LeGuin’s children’s book, A Wizard of Earthsea:

Only in silence the word,

Only in dark the light,

Only in dying life:

Bright the hawk’s flight

On the empty sky.

—The Creation of Éa

Only in silence, the word.  Easy enough to figure that one out, right?  We can’t hear if we’re always talking.  The curse of division that was the curse of the confusion of tongues, that befell the builders of Babel – and “Babel” and “babble” are close enough.  The Lord spoke to Elijah not in the hurricane or the earthquake or the fire, but in a still, small voice afterwards (and don’t we all wish that those who see signs and portents in earthquakes and hurricanes would remember this?).  Job makes his complaint and silences his friends, but when God finally speaks to him, Job promises to keep silence and complain no more.  The Epistle of James warns of the dangers of the unbridled tongue.  So obviously, silence is better than speech, yes?

There’s a wonderful story by the late Ray Bradbury, God rest him; from 1953, called “The Murderer” and I’m going to semi-spoiler it for you by giving you the end paragraph:

Three phones rang.  A duplicate wrist radio in his desk drawer buzzed like a wounded  grasshopper.  The intercom flashed a pink light and click-clicked.  Three phones  rang.  The  drawer  buzzed.  Music blew in through the open door.  The psychiatrist, humming quietly, fitted the new wrist radio to his wrist, flipped the  intercom,  talked  a  moment,  picked  up  one telephone, talked, picked up another  telephone, talked, picked up the third telephone, talked, touched the wrist-radio button, talked calmly and quietly, his face cool and serene, in the middle of the music and the lights flashing, the two phones ringing again, and his  hands moving, and his wrist radio buzzing, and the intercoms talking, and voices speaking from the ceiling.  And he went on quietly this way through the remainder of a cool, air-conditioned, and long afternoon, telephone, wrist radio, intercom, telephone, wrist  radio, intercom, telephone, wrist radio, intercom, telephone, wrist  radio, intercom, telephone, wrist radio, intercom, telephone, wrist radio…

This is from before the internet, Twitter, Facebook, 24-hour cable and satellite television, smartphones, iPods and the like, but doesn’t it sound familiar?  Never being out of touch, always linked in, online and contactable whether at work, at home or on holiday?  We are so accustomed to constant noise and having our ears filled up that it is disconcerting to be cut off.  We agree we need more silence, we even think we want it, but when we get it… what do we do with it?  Right now, as I’m typing this, I’m the only person in the house and I’m listening to a radio station over the internet because it would be too odd, too quiet and lonely, to sit here in silence.  I am out of the habit of coping with the quiet, even though I grew up in the countryside where there was nothing but the sound of the sea and the wind and maybe insects buzzing, birds calling; where, as a child, for hours I would be playing on my own, climbing the willow trees and just listening to the world around me.  But that was years and years ago, and now I am used to the sounds of town life.

Silence can be awkward, when we don’t know what to say or how to say it.  Silence can be wounding, it can be used as a weapon, as denial of sharing ourselves with those who should be closest to us.  Silence can fester, when secrets are buried and what everyone knows is left unacknowledged, swept under the carpet, instead of being dealt with and cleared.  It’s a cliché of counseling and business seminars, but communication is a vital skill.  We have a very romantic view of the place of silence in religion, but we don’t realize that it is hard work.  Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem makes it sound so easy: “Elected Silence, sing to me/And beat upon my whorlèd ear” but it’s not that soft and pleasant.

After all, when you are alone with just yourself and God, you find out how noisy your interior world is, and this crosses all monastic traditions, both Christian and non-Christian – the Buddhist metaphor of the “monkey mind” relates to this.  There’s plenty of jokes and common misconceptions about Trappists and vows of silence, but the film about a Carthusian monastery Into Great Silence  (which I must confess I have not seen myself) gives a better idea of what the reality is.  Think about having to keep absolute silence (the magnum silencium, the Great Silence) for the night hours; of having to restrict unnecessary speech so that sign languages were used for communication.

You can then perhaps understand better why monasticism such as that of the Desert Fathers was considered one of the three types of martyrdom (the red, the white and the blue/green); why a life of asceticism was considered a type of martyrdom at all.  To quote from Chesterton’s “The Ball and the Cross”, where the atheist Turnbull and the Catholic MacIan have been locked up in a lunatic asylum on the foot of their quarrel, and the worst punishment is the ‘humane’, scientific solitary confinement:

“I know what you mean,” answered the other.  “It has been awful.  For a mortal month I have been alone with God.”

Turnbull started, and it was on the tip of his tongue to answer: “Alone with God!  Then you do not know what loneliness is.”

But he answered, after all, in his old defiant style: “Alone with God, were you?  And I suppose you found his Majesty’s society rather monotonous?”

“Oh, no,” said MacIan, and his voice shuddered; “it was a great deal too exciting.”

Silence is also a form of quarantine, as in C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet, where our world is Thulcandra, the Silent Planet.  It is so called because of the rebellion and fall of the Prince of our world, when all communication was cut off between us and the other inhabited planets so that the baleful influence of our bent humanity and the fallen angel’s malice could not contaminate the other worlds.  In that setting, there are no silences of the infinite spaces, but the morning stars sing together, and the sons of God shout for joy.

Silence can be like the blank page for the writer, a challenge and a mockery.  What can we say?  How will we say it?  Do we have anything to say?  Does anyone want to hear what we have to say?  We have the impulse and the compulsion to speak, rather than remain silent, because we rush in to fill the emptiness with advice, with reasons, with explanations, rather than simply say “I don’t know.  I don’t know why this happened.  I don’t know what God means, or if God is there.”  That is the silence Job’s friends tried to fill.  That is the silence that atheists or simply the heart-broken cast up as a denial of a good god, of a benevolent being who cares for us and has the power and the will to comfort and aid us.  Again, to quote Turnbull from “The Ball and the Cross” (when he meets one of the lunatics in the asylum who is under the delusion that he is God):

The editor of The Atheist turned upon him like one who has lost all patience, and exploded: “Yes, you are God, aren’t you?” he said, abruptly, “Why do we have two sets of teeth?”

“Teeth?” spluttered the genteel lunatic, “teeth?”

“Yes,” cried Turnbull, advancing on him swiftly and with animated gestures, “why does teething hurt?  Why do growing pains hurt?  Why are measles catching?  Why does a rose have thorns?  Why do rhinoceroses have horns?  Why is the horn on the top of the nose?  Why haven’t I a horn on the top of my nose, eh?”  And he struck the bridge of his nose smartly with his forefinger to indicate the place of the omission and then wagged the finger menacingly at the Creator.

“I’ve often wanted to meet you,” he resumed sternly after a pause, “to hold you accountable for all the idiocy and cruelty of this muddled and meaningless world of yours.  You make a hundred seeds and only one bears fruit.  You make a million worlds and only one seems inhabited.  What do you mean by it, eh?  What do you mean by it?”

The unhappy lunatic had fallen back before this quite novel form of attack, and lifted his burnt-out cigarette almost like one warding off a blow.  Turnbull went on like a torrent.

“A man died yesterday in Ealing.  You murdered him.  A girl had the toothache in Croydon. You gave it her.  Fifty sailors were drowned off Selsey Bill.  You scuttled their ship.  What have you got to say for yourself, eh?”

“The other gentleman,” cried Turnbull, scornfully, “is a submissive and loyal and obedient gentleman.  He likes the people who wear crowns, whether of diamonds or of stars.  He believes in the divine right of kings, and it is appropriate enough that he should have the king for his second.  But it is not appropriate to me that I should have God for my second.  God is not good enough.  I dislike and I deny the divine right of kings.  But I dislike more and I deny more the divine right of divinity.”

That is the silence in Revelation, when the seventh seal is opened, and “it was silent in heaven for about half an hour.”  I don’t know about you, but that strikes me not as a comforting, easeful, peaceful silence but rather a brooding, foreboding, anticipatory silence.  That is the silence when Jesus waited two days from hearing the urgent message sent by Lazarus’ family “Lord, the one you love is ill.”  If He could heal with only a word, without even needing to be there, as the centurion’s servant was healed, as the son of the man at Capernaum was healed, as the daughter of the Gentile woman was healed, then why did He leave Lazarus to die?  Martha and Mary did not lack faith, for they both said “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Was it just so that a miracle could be performed?  But Jesus wept, when He saw the grave, and it was very hard for the family to undergo such grief even if a miracle was in store.  The silences in the Gospels are troubling and puzzling, not comforting.

How many times does Jesus say to those who have witnessed His power and compassion “Tell no-one” or “Do not speak of this yet”?  Why does He do this?  Why not, if He has come to announce to Israel that her long-awaited Savior and King is here, why not cry it aloud from the rooftops?  Why not let those who have been helped tell their story?  Why this insistence on silence?  We can rush into speech to fill up these silences, but perhaps our best response is the harsh one of Job:

I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.  ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’  Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.  ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.

I call it a harsh answer, because Job’s response is not to be consoled, not to be comforted, but to scorn himself and seek further mortification.  Not the most uplifting of replies for the earnest seeker or the troubled faithful.  So perhaps we have to learn when to speak and when to be silent.  Those of us who rush in with good advice and “what I think you should do” must learn to hold our tongues and simply be present with others in their times of suffering.  Those of us who, like the Jona Lewie song “You’ll Always Find Me in the Kitchen at Parties”, prefer not to interact with others too much may need to speak up and show our reasons for our beliefs and not duck the hard questions for the sake of “going along to get along.”  The art is knowing which to do and when to do it.  To take the example of Martha and Mary again, we take Mary as representing “the better part” because she sat at the feet of the Lord and learned in silence, rather than being “busy with many cares” like Martha.  Yet when Lazarus is laid in the tomb and Jesus finally arrives, it is Martha who runs forth to meet Him while Mary remains at home.  In one case, silent contemplation leads to the Lord, in another, it leads to paralysis and grief that can see no hope.  Mary and Martha are taken as representing or fulfilling the types, like their predecessors Rachel and Leah, of the contemplative and the active lives.  Dante’s last dream, in Canto XXVII of the “Purgatorio”, sees Leah in a vision (and she prefigures Mathilda, whom he meets in the Earthly Paradise and who leads him to the beloved Beatrice):

(I)n a dream it seemed to me I saw a lady,

young and lovely, passing through a meadow

as she gathered flowers, singing:

“Let anyone who asks my name know I am Leah,

and here I move about, using my fair hands

to weave myself a garland.

To be pleased at my reflection I adorn myself,

but my sister Rachel never leaves her mirror,

sitting before it all day long.

She is as eager to gaze into her own fair eyes

as I to adorn myself with my own hands.

She in seeing, I in doing, find our satisfaction.”

Rachel is beautiful but barren, Leah is weak-eyed but fruitful.  Neither is to be scorned or valued more than the other, both contemplation and action, both silence and speech are necessary.  We meet silence in Heaven in the “Paradiso,” where Dante rises to the sphere of Saturn, the sphere of the Contemplatives, and all is silence.  Saturn, in astrology and mediaeval thought, was the planet of the element lead, the temperament melancholy, time, old age, sickness, prison, hardships; duty, discipline, authority, responsibility; limitations, restrictions and boundaries.  In That Hideous Strength, the third book in his Space Trilogy, Lewis describes the presence of the Angel of Saturn as perceived by humans:

Saturn, whose name in the heavens is Lurga, stood in the Blue Room.  His spirit lay upon the house, or even on the whole earth, with a cold pressure such as might flatten the very orb of Tellus to a wafer.  Matched against the lead-like burden of his antiquity, the other gods themselves perhaps felt young and ephemeral.  It was a mountain of centuries sloping up from the highest antiquity we can conceive, up and up like a mountain whose summit never comes into sight, not to eternity where the thought can rest, but into more and still more time, into freezing wastes and silence of unnameable numbers.  It was also strong like a mountain: its age was no mere morass of time where imagination can sink in reverie, but a living, self-remembering duration which repelled lighter intelligences from its structure as granite flings back waves, itself unwithered and undecayed, but able to wither any who approached it unadvised.  Ransom and Merlin suffered a sensation of unendurable cold: and all that was strength in Lurga became sorrow as it entered them.

Is this why Beatrice is silent and unsmiling in the heaven of Saturn?  Is this why that sphere is silent, when all the other heavens are filled with music and speech and joy?  No, says Dante; it is because if she smiled, in this world her beauty would be so overwhelming that he would be destroyed by it like Semele who burned to ashes when Zeus appeared to her in his glory.  Dante, as usual, is consumed with curiosity and eager to ask questions, but he is learning to be guided by the wisdom of others:

And the one that stayed the closest there to us

grew so shining bright I said, but not aloud,

“This sign makes clear your love for me.

But she, upon whose word I wait to know

when and how to speak or to be silent, she keeps still

and I do well, against my will, to ask no question.”

She, therefore, who could see my silence plain

in the sight of Him whose sight beholds all things,

then said: “Satisfy the ardent wish that burns within you.”

This shining light is St. Peter Damian, who descends to speak with him, and who explains the reason there is silence in this heaven; Dante’s hearing is as mortal as his sight, so he could not bear to hear the song of the souls in this sphere.  He is still too human to be able to bear the full splendor and joy of Heaven unmediated.

So the silence of Heaven is not because there is no reason to speak, or no answer to give.  Silence leads to inexpressible joy and is not an end in itself.  We must learn to be silent so that we may learn when to speak.


  1. “God speaks in silence.”

  2. God’s revealed Word comes in the Bible, in preaching and teaching about Christ, and in the consolation of the brethren, and in the sacraments.

    Quiet time can be great, too. A great time to consider all the things that God has done for us, is doing for us, and will yet do for us.

  3. Martha, I wondered where you were.

    This follows nicely after Mike’s article on busyness. Thanks to both of you for a dose of sanity.

    • I’ll add that not only does it follow nicely after CM’s article on Getting Lost, but also Lisa Dye’s article on dying to self for the Lord. Three great articles in a row, all kinda/sorta connected/related (at least in my mind). Hey, a God-thing!!!

    • Thank you all for your kind words, but thank Jeff and Chaplain Mike most for getting the best out of us.

      LIsa’s great article was what inspired me and Chaplain Mike set the theme for the week.

      Silence is easily recommended as an alternative to our busy, noisy, modern life, but we forget or don’t realise that silence is also hard work, and that to be truly fruitful, silence is not about me sitting in a nice pastoral spot relaxing and unwinding, but paring down and pruning back to blossom and give a harvest later.

      Also, those of us who are silent and those of us who are eloquent both have a place, and we can learn and teach one another. It’s Ecclesiastes again: to everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.

      Besides, where else would I get to quote SF and Fantasy novels, the Gospels, the Book of Revelation, and classic poetry all in the same article?


  4. “It’s Ecclesiastes again: to everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.”

    So very true, Martha. Thanks for your wonderful post. You do know how to pull many threads together to weave a beautiful pattern!

  5. David Cornwell says

    Martha, this is a wonderful piece that I will be coming back to later today when I can read it the way it should be read– in some silence, not considering schedule, and what needs to be done next.

  6. I’m just now getting to read since I was away most of yesterday. These are such rich thoughts, Martha.

    “After all, when you are alone with just yourself and God, you find out how noisy your interior world is.” What a struggle it is to get to the silence necessary to hear the Spirit speak. Currently, I’m reading The Life of Teresa of Avila by Herself. Quite a bit of her writing is devoted to describing her practice of “mental prayer.” She struggled with a very active mind and sought by this practice to overcome the voice of her own thoughts trying to usurp the Spirit. That would be quite the feat. I’ve been praying for 37 years and still find it necessary to pray speaking or whispering to myself so that my overactive mind won’t lead me down a million meandering paths. Lately, I’ve been striving to pray quietly and also to sit silently and prayerfully to see how God might change me in something. This is difficult for me.

    Your quotes by Lewis reminded me that I have envied his many years of long walks between work and home … minus a cell phone. That, no doubt, was a contributing factor to his expansive and deep development of the revelations that God gave him and also of his ability to articulate them.

    • David Cornwell says

      One of the reasons that I love walking is that, for me, it’s the best of places and ways to pray. One a rural road no one even notices if I appear to be muttering to myself!

      • Ditto, David.

        We’re in Sydney Aust. this month visiting family. This morning we’re attending “church” at a Hillsong campus (where my step-son works). I expect there’ll be plenty of noise and hoopla. I would prefer the half-hour of silence of Rev. 8:1