Aaaaaaand we’re back!
Yes, it’s been a while. The pages of Contagious Caritas, in a metaphorical sense, have been silent. I’m talking “Silent Night” silent (which, ironically, is all sound). Don’t worry, though. I’ll have you know that more is on the way–I am doing some major research on The Book of Ecclesiastes for an upcoming blog post, and Noah is searching for a spark of inspiration of his own. But for now, let’s talk about silence–the silence that we feel in our own heads, the silence that seems to blare in an empty room, the silence that we feel, sometimes, in our conversation and search for the Almighty.
Once I was at a university sponsored event, entitled “Jenga with Jenkins,” which, in short, was a question-by-question interview with the University President, in which each student had to pull out a block from a Jenga tower to ask the president a stock question. I’m talking “What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?” or “What’s your favorite spot on campus?” Strategic, measured, nothing dicey. I got up there, asked some question about basketball, and gingerly slid a block from the tower, which looked something like a loaf of ready-sliced bread stood lengthwise.
Later, a young woman walked up to the tower, which at this point looked more like a rectangular cut of Swiss cheese. I had heard her contemplating her question with her friend–something about the university president’s favorite color. She sat in the chair opposite the president, nibbled at the teetering tower with a stealthy finger and poked a block through the tower’s middle (a task which, incidentally, requires a lot of silence). Then her question:
“Have there ever been any times in your life when you have doubted your faith, and how did you get over it in that case?”
Hmm. . . a little more penetrating than asking the president’s favorite color. Now, the president answered articulately, citing C. S. Lewis and his times of doubt at college, but what struck me most was what he said about his current faith journey:
“As I grow older, the question hasn’t been ‘Does God exist?’ but, rather, ‘Why is He so quiet?'”
Enter the silence. This is what apologist Michelle Arnold calls the “Divine ‘Silence'” in a recent blog post on Catholic Answers.com. It’s that feeling of quiet, the unresponsiveness of God in prayer, the emptiness and longing for a word, for a sign. Arnold, of course, does not leave her readers without advice, as she responds to how she encounters God amid the soundlessness.
But we have to trust in faith that God does reveal himself to us, even those of us not favored with divine heart burdens and ministering angels. So, I got to thinking. How does God talk to me? I came up with a couple of possibilities, and I share them only in hopes that it may help others, struggling with what seems to be The Great Silence in their prayer lives, to discern the ways in which God talks to them.
To sum it up, Arnold lists off the following as signs of God’s interactions in our lives through those small miracles that we often call coincidence: God Speaks Through Dates (I would add “Times” as well), God Speaks Through Impulses, and Listening to God in Silence. So perhaps really seeking God’s presence in the commonplace fabric of our lives will discover to us the answer in the silence. That’s fine and dandy. Yet, when I encounter silence in relationships with others, searching for their signs in my life doesn’t cut it.
Let me step back for a moment. God’s silence, the “Divine ‘Silence'”is not equivalent to a friend not returning my phone calls. God can be seen in signs and coincidence. People are temporal and bound by corporeal bodies; they can’t be anywhere where their bodies are not, whereas God transcends these boundaries and, I suppose, can be felt in many ways–in the simplicity of a sea shell or the poignancy of a blinking light (that’s not to say that God is the sea shell or is the blinking light, as that would be pantheism). Still, in both of these cases of silence, I, for one, desire a real impact force that reminds me of the other’s presence. Let me tell you about the silence that I’m facing right now, in my hotel room, sitting here alone.
To drown out the oxymoronic sound of silence, I am listening to old interviews on Youtube and even had the TV buzzing for a while. Quiet itself isn’t bad. Really, I do need it sometimes for its solace and meditative quality and peace. In German, the word for quiet (Ruhe) has a close connotation that elicits peace. But this kind of silence reminds me of a silence that is far more penetrating, an inner silence, an emptiness that I feel for want of encountering the souls of others.
Earlier during my stay in this lonely hotel room, I sent a text message to a friend hoping to break the silence. I just wanted to talk, that was all. It wasn’t like I was asking any real favors. But the friend responded that she needed to get to sleep soon and wanted to get through a few chapters in a book before then. She just didn’t have time to talk. I send her another message today, to which I have received no response. I tried to contact another friend later. Similarly busy. And I felt sad, and I felt broken. Because the inner monologue of silence continued in my soul.
I was at the local library not long after that. There I was directed towards the children’s book section by some longing to return to the simplicity of childhood, I guess, to a time before silence was a thing about which to worry. A brightly colored book caught my eye. On its cover a little orange cartoon bear walked drearily through the rain. On another page, he looking at himself in a rain puddle. The title was Some Days Are Lonely. I read the whole book, wondering if it could help me at all. But all it really did was repeat the book’s title and say that other days, thank God, have rainbows. So I put it down and walked on, my mind ringing with silence.
Maybe I’m being over-dramatic. Perhaps I’m hypersensitive and too dependent on interaction with other people. But I’m not the only one irked by silence in place of the responses that we want to hear, that we think that we deserve to hear. The ancient Israelites had it rough, too, as per Psalm 83: 1: “O God, do not remain silent; do not turn a deaf ear, do not stand aloof, O God.” For me, that’s the problem with silence, of the divine and human variety. Whether it’s my brother not telling me when he’s getting back from class or God hiding the meaning of the world from my ears and eyes, I just want an answer. And silence is no answer to me. Need this be so?
Maybe that’s the real problem with facing silences of all kinds. I myself assume that silence is no answer at all, that it’s very essence is constituted by a lacking and an emptiness. Yet, silence may yet have great substance.
Consider an actor staring quietly into the distance of a glimmering lake after the death of a loved one. No sound is necessary to communicate the profundity of this portrayed reflection. Consider the silence following the passing of a tornado, and the great calm that could not be described by words. And consider the own silence of this post, the soundlessness of its words passing from page to brain, that can still pound across (hopefully) a coherent point. With all these things considered, can I really blame God for saying nothing when I ask him where I ought to direct the journey of my life? In that silence is the most perfect of answers: I need not tell you what you are to do. In the silence of your soul you know. Words are not needed. Flashing lights and singing choirs punctuate this point no further. You are on the path. Continue along in the silence of its peace.