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My Love She Speaks Like Silence
 

A street person named Tim would sometimes show up for Sunday services at the Episcopal church I attend in Middletown, CT. Tim is gone now, but he used to sit near the back, clutching a big leather-bound Bible with a cross duct-taped on the cover. Tim was harmless enough, but people didn’t like to sit near him, because he was often engaged in a fierce conversation with himself in low tones during the service, especially when he went off his meds. It can be disconcerting to be around people who hear voices no one else can hear. In Tim’s case, it was also hard to hear the sermons, which were often about people who resembled Tim in some ways — folks like Abraham, Moses and St. Paul — who also heard voices no one else could hear.

Of course, we all hear voices that are inaudible to everyone else, but they usually answer to the name of “me,” so we don’t attract unwanted attention from mental health professionals. But our own interior voices can also make it hard to hear sermons when we start thinking about what we will have for lunch or what might be on TV that evening. With Tim you could always move to another pew when he was off his meds. But there is no escape from the voice prattling away between your ears.

The Morning Prayer service used in the Episcopal Church begins with various verses from Scripture, including this exhortation from the Prophet Habbakkuk: “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” Why silence? Because otherwise we will never hear the “still small voice” that whispers from the depths of our own souls. The prophet Elijah imagined that the voice of God would thunder from the mountaintops. He sought the Lord in wind and earthquake and fire but found him at last in the silence of his own heart.

“Nothing is so like God as silence,” wrote the 13th-century German mystic, Meister Eckhart. Why should this be so? Our thoughts can certainly be a distraction, but so can those prayers and practices we imagine will bring us closer to God. The Jesuit spiritual director Jean-Pierre de Caussade warned, “All individual ideas, understanding, endeavors, searching, or argument become a source of fantasy….Those who damn their souls do so by attempting to achieve through their fantasies what those who save their souls achieve through submitting to [God’s] will.”

This was the hard lesson that Job learned when he sought in vain for some explanation of his suffering at the Lord’s hands. He imagined that his misfortune gave him moral standing. It did not. He was met with stony silence at every turn, while his so-called friends hectored him for having brought so much trouble on himself. When God eventually condescended to speak to him out of the whirlwind, Job was rebuked for his presumption. Poor Job discovered that finding oneself face to face with the Lord God Almighty could be a decidedly mixed blessing. “I have uttered what I did not understand,” he said meekly; “things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” With that he fell silent, and his silence became his prayer.

When we at last fall silent, we discover that life as it unfolds from moment to moment offers no explanations and requires none. Everything just is. Our tidy explanations, our theologies, our philosophies, our justifications, our prayers and pleadings are unavailing. They all fail utterly to penetrate the essential mystery of being. This, of course, can be terrifying to those who take comfort in all that they do to pretend otherwise. They recoil at the thought that the bare fact of existence is all there is. But that is just another thought to be swallowed up in the enfolding silence. Our fear is that unadorned being is all there is, not realizing that it is everything.

Habbakkuk 2:20
1 Kings 19:11-13

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