Within the context of three small groups at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC we’ve spent the last five weeks (with a few more to go) talking about prayer. The journey has brought us to a myriad of places, some of these the result of where a sustained commitment to (or a striving toward) daily prayer can take us within the depths of ourselves and others the result of where similar commitments have taken others (the psalmists, the Saints, St. Teresa of Avila, Madeline L’Engle). When all is said and done we hope that these commitments will help us, the church, discover places that we can go together.
In preparing for last week’s session I came across a quote that at first caught me by surprise: “In the company of a close friend I sometimes find myself reduced to silence, not because the relationship is wordless (nothing is more verbose than friendship), but because in friendship you can never say enough; the real goal of friendship is to talk your way into silence (Benjamin Myers, Christ The Stranger: The theology of Rowan Williams, T & T Clark, 2012).”
For many years as a young (read starving) artist in Cincinnati I paid my bills by doing construction work. This work consisted mostly in rehabbing Italianate buildings in a neighborhood known as Over the Rhine and our “crews” were odd little groups made up of similarly minded artists who worked just enough to pay our rent on studios. Over time we’d get to know one another well and the benefit here was that the more we knew each other the less we’d have to say; if you’ve ever carried multiple sheets of 10′ drywall up four flights of winding stairs you’ll understand the benefit of not having to stop and negotiate every turn; the benefit of knowing, by instinct, what the person carrying the opposite end of that heavy load was thinking.
Those of us who have been blessed with intimate relationships know about such silences and the benefits of being able to communicate without words – about the joy and wonder of having talked our way into silence. What a joy it is to consider the same as a possibility when it comes to our intimacy with God! That rather than a perpetual starting and stopping, an endless re-negotiation, our “conversation” with God is the result of having talked our way into silence with the divine partner carrying the opposite end of the heavy load of our lives!
Compellingly, in Christian theology this kind of silence is the goal of the contemplative life, a life sometimes misunderstood as being the opposite of active – 0ne reserved for monks and monastics and not for those of us who don’t have time to be “passive” but must negotiate with the noisy and talkative world clamoring for our attention and conversation. The contemplative life, in fact, is not a life marked by passivity but rather by instinct and intimacy with God, an intimacy available only to those who have talked their way to silence. It is wonderful, is it not, to think about such a life? Can you imagine such a life as your own?
And if we can imagine such a life as individuals, imagine with me what it might look like if we were to talk our way into silence as the church… I imagine such a silence as golden.
No doubt you’ve heard St John of the Cross’ “God’s first language is silence.” Thomas Keating adds, “And everything else is a poor translation.”
My husband travels a lot. During a longer than usual absence, I commented to a friend that I really missed having Rich with me to be quiet with. She didn’t understand that. When RIch got back, we were sitting in our usual chairs that evening and I asked him if he thought that was an odd thing to say. He just smiled, and then we sat quietly.
For the church? We need to have a common vision of the “heavy load.” Something to work on.
As a musician in the church, it’s probably surprising to know how much this cup resonated with me. But it is the silences between the notes that carry the most power. I’m a huge fan of companionable silence. Thanks for these thoughts.