The Power of Silence
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, December 12, 9999
Certainly, the winter season that now stands before us has its own choicest blessings to offer us:
The darkness of the early winter morn is beautiful
Nothing to fear
Sleep, too, is beautiful--
But there is no reason to resist
arising from sleep,
to feel the light within
slowly, slowly, painstakingly at times
coming to illumine the darkness of our souls.
The darkness of the early winter morn is beautiful
As smoke arises from chimneys near and far
As bands of pink and white light gild the sky
Slowly, slowly illuminating the black
Nature does not resist arising from her sleep,
Her night becomes day without struggle,
With no real wall between one and the other.
So let it be with us:
To allow the life force in our souls
To flow within me--
Not to try to control it,
Not to struggle against it,
But to allow our force
to become one with the force of all life--
to allow our nights to be
the loyal and loving helpmate of our days.
The darkness of winter is not some phantom haunting our days. It is, rather, a holy and awesome mystery.
And so is the stillness, the quiet, surrounded by that darkness:
"This word is a hidden word," wrote the great mystic Meister Eckhart, "and comes in the darkness of the night." He goes on:
"To enter this darkness
all voices and sounds
all images and likenesses.
For no image has ever revealed the soul's foundation
where God herself [dwells]."
"Nothing in all creation is so like God as stillness," wrote Eckhart. His words are echoed, it seems, of those of a more modern mystic, Thomas Merton:
"Love winter when the plants say nothing," Merton wrote. And:
Listen to the stones of the wall
Be silent, they try
to speak your
To the living walls.
Who are you?
Are you? Whose
Silence are you?"
"I said to my soul, be still," wrote T.S. Eliot.
"...be still, and let the dark come upon you
which shall be the darkness of God."
For as the Psalmist wrote:
"Be still, and know that I am God."
Be still, and know that God is.
"Nothing in all creation is so like God as stillness," wrote Merton. And, in the words of Rilke: "I feel closer to that which language cannot reach."
Silence (like darkness) is the absence of images, the absence of projections. When we enter into silence, we let go of our images-- our creeds-- our paradigms-- our metaphors-- our systems-- our five-year plans-- and let the cosmos speak to us. When we have pealed away all of our language-- all of our intellectualization and rationalization-- we come face to face with those deeper truths which are beyond all human categories. Face to face with that ground and source of Being that many of us would call God.
We are, in our modern world, so overwhelmed by visual images and auditory stimulation (by noise) that sometimes, it's hard to imagine letting go of all this and just letting silence be silence. We are so overwhelmed, day in, day out, by flashing lights and blaring sirens and the television's glow and the radio's boom-- that is it any wonder we so crave and yearn for just a few moments of (inner and outer) peace and quiet?
"Letting go of busyness and allowing silence to be silence means letting go of the busy work of projecting," writes Matthew Fox. This is not easy, he admits. It flies in the face of who we think we "ought" to be as modern busy, busy, active modern men and women. But, Fox goes on:
"We are indeed capable of such blankness, emptiness, silence. But we need to desire it deeply, to pray for it, and even to let this letting go become our prayer." So Meister Eckhart once confessed that he "prayed God to rid me of God". He knew that we can't empty ourselves of our projections and images of the Divine (all limited as they are by our language and experience) if we dwell too long, and cling too long, and focus too much on them.
As one theologian has put it: "One does not let go of a pink elephant in one's head by trying to let go of a pink elephant in one's head." Or, you might remember the character in the movie Ghostbusters who just couldn't get rid of the image of the Stay-Puff Marshmallow Man in his head-- because he kept thinking of how much he wanted to get rid of the image of the Stay-Puff Marshmallow man! Substitute the pictures most of us have of God for the Stay-Puff Marshmallow Man (not so difficult to do in some cases, really), and you'll see something of the problem we have as religious women and men. To reach God, we have to let go of our small and limited visions of God. To hear God's voice, we have to be still, and enter into deep, profound, powerful silence.
This, obviously, represents a major change from how we live our 9 to 5 lives, Monday through Saturday. It also represents a major change from the way most of us "do" religion on Sunday, as well. Maybe the Society of Friends, or Quakers, have it right with their practice of "waiting on the Lord"-- their worship services of sitting in silence for extended periods, punctuated only when a member feels inspired by God to share something with the group.
I think it's safe to say that as a religious people, we Unitarian Universalists are not terribly comfortable with long periods of silence in our worship. We have a few moments at the start of the service (very pointedly called "A Few Moments of Silence"), to sort of get everyone settled down from greeting and visiting with one another. We also have a bit of silence after the prayer, before we sing "Spirit of Life" (and this is usually a pretty powerful part of the Sunday service for me-- and I hope for you-- at least when I let the silence be silence and don't crowd it out with thoughts and projections of what I'm going to say next).
But these little bits of silence are, obviously, mere tidbits-- a little "smackeral" of silence-- amid the great verbal feast of profundity and inspiration with which you are generally feasted in our worship together. (Please ingest that last sentence with more than a fair amount of salt.)
But we are, frankly, a people of the word-- the spoken word and the written word, and if I'd suggested this morning, in place of a sermon that we simply come together and sit in silence for an hour, my inkling is that I would have been greeted with quite few blank stares and perhaps even hostility, and maybe even a little disappointment. Many of us, perhaps, would have felt that the time had been pretty much wasted.
In worship, as in life, we want to do, and not simply to be.
But you see: you can't have one without the other, and live a complete and fulfilled life. A life that is all busy-ness, busy-ness, busy-ness, do, do, doing, before too long turns into one long, gray blur of a life, devoid of any joy or fun or spontaneity whatsoever. (That's a lesson that I bet we've all learned at one time or another in our lives.)
When we listen to music, you know, we're listening to the silence between the notes as much as we're listening to the notes themselves. The whole point of rhythm is found in the juxtaposition of musical notes and the silences on either side of them. That's where we can find the rhythm for our own lives, as well: not just in the notes of the horn we blow, but in the silence on either side, that cushions and fosters and nurtures those notes, from where they come, to where they go...
We need moments of reflection (whole days of reflection, really) in which we can be still and listen, and learn and discover, and be refreshed. We need times for contemplation and meditation and prayer. Times just to be. Times just to be quiet. Time to be still and to know...
Perhaps one antidote to the time famine that so many of us seem to be experiencing in our lives is to seize the time (and a good block of it, too) to fast from noise-- to fast from auditory stimulation. Time to turn within, and be still, and let our inner mechanisms get reset, and let our inner balance and rhythm be restored.
That means, very simply, finding time for meditation. Where are we going to find all this time? It might mean letting go of something else. It might mean setting different priorities for how we use our time. One thing about us human ones, as time famished as many of us seem to be: We have this way of finding the time to do those things which are really most important to us. I am convinced that this is true. We consciously decide how we spend our hours. We know that certain things "have to be done": We know, for instance, that if we don't take the time to brush our teeth, then they're all going to fall out, sooner or later. That's how the Spirit works inside us, too: If we can't make at least a nominal amount of time for spiritual refreshment and inspiration, then it should come as no surprise when we end up feeling spiritually bankrupt and empty.
Now, the very idea of meditation may be a concept that seems foreign to many of us. "It's just not me," some of us might say. And for good reason, as Deepak Chopra writes:
"The picture of meditation that many people have is of an austere, disciplined setting, with saffron-robed monks sitting row upon row at stiff attention."
But this "outer picture" is deceiving, Chopra continues. "...the inner experience of meditation can be had without any kind of forced discipline. The outer trappings-- how one sits, breathes, dresses, and so forth-- are irrelevant."
And Chopra goes on:
"When I sit down to meditate, my inner experience can best be described by what I am not doing: I am not focusing my mind or contemplating any idea; I am not in a spiritual or introspective mood; I do not count time or control my breaths. No effort is being made to cause any thoughts to come or go. There are no particular feelings which I am trying to induce or avoid...
"What am I doing then? The best answer is that I am just not doing; I am engaged in the normal activity of the mind to turn into silence, but without coercing it to do so. I am getting past the inner noise of thoughts and feelings in order to reveal what the silence inside of me is really like."
From this silence inside, nurtured by the silence without, we can find a birthplace for the new being we would be as we come to contemplate the next stage of our living. "Silence is the birthplace of happiness," Chopra continues. "Silence is where we get our bursts of inspiration, our tender feelings of compassion and empathy, our sense of love." If we don't let go and go inside and be still, then tender emotions like these will be lost in our external drive to survive and protect and control our environment and manage our lives.
Out of the deepest quiet we can ever feel come those moments of inspiration-- the voice of conscience, the still, small voice of God in our souls-- that inspires us and leads us forward. It's times of inspiration like these that we see most clearly in the lives of heroic figures like Martin Luther King or Gandhi or Nelson Mandela. Even some one as pro-active and action-oriented as Susan B. Anthony, for example, had to have her moments of calm before the tumult: those times when she stopped doing long enough to pause, and hear the voice guiding her on, and reminding her of what she was called to be.
If we merely continue to act, day in and day out, year after year, from our own pre-conceived notions and dogmas, then all too soon we become nothing more that political or spiritual bureaucrats, isolated and alienated from the spirit of our work.
But if we take the time for silence, then we can be refreshed, and we can discern what the voice of the Holy and True is speaking to us. And we can rise then from our rest, refreshed and reinspired, to take up the work that is before us.
Wrote Gandhi of this process: "Silence is a great help to a seeker after truth. In the attitude of silence the soul finds a path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness."
The growing plants of our lives grow and are nurtured in deep, meaningful dialogue and discourse with others. They are watered by the tears we shed, and by the tears of others, as well. They grow strong in a rich, varied soil of all our brothers and sisters all around us. Our lives grow strong in the music we make together. There are different songs we sing at different seasons of our lives, as well.
But in order for those tender shoots to grow, their delicate seeds must be planted in silence. They must germinate in the darkness deep within. For just before every zestful spring of burgeoning new life and refulgent freedom, there lies a peaceful wintertime of rest, of holy darkness and sacred silence.
When the night has been too lonely
and the road has been too long,
and you think that love is only
for the lucky and the strong,
just remember in the winter,
far beneath the bitter snow,
lies the seed that with the sun's love,
in the spring becomes the rose.
The winter reminds us to listen to the silence between the notes. And, it reminds us too that
Life is not a race, so take it slower.
Hear the music before the song is over.
Slow down. Be still. Let go. Let God.