Category Archives: idolatry

The Fertility of Silence

This may sound odd coming from a person who started this blog a few weeks ago, but over the years I’ve not been a fan of social media, electronic readers, and the like. A year and a half ago, a couple of good friends and I were conversing about a topic that had been on everyone’s minds for a few weeks—the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. In short order, however, the conversation turned into a rant (from me) about the generally self-absorbed quality of online communication. The earthquake/tsunami topic arose because one of my friends said “I have something I want to read to you,” then proceeded to start reading from the top a multi-entry exchange on an acquaintance’s Facebook page about the disaster and subsequent tragedies in Japan.

Is anyone else struggling with how to feel about all the suffering in Japan? None of the usual feelings—anger, sadness, empathy—seem right. So I just feel numb. Am I the only one? Can any-one help me out? 

I know what you mean. I’m usually a very sensitive, caring person, but I’m numb too. How am I supposed to feel? 

I haven’t been able to sleep because I’m so upset.

We’re watching one of the most culturally developed countries in the world disintegrate in front of us. I turn the TV off but I can’t stop thinking about it. 

I know—I’m at a loss.

And so on. My blood pressure started to rise. My friend never got to his own contributions twenty or so more slots down the line, because I interrupted him with more force and annoyance than was probably warranted.

This is why I hate Facebook, blogging, chat rooms, and all that e-crap! This whole conversation has turned a great and profound tragedy into yet another obsessive round of “Me Me Me”! How should I feel, tell me I’m okay, do you think I’m right, how fast can I get this to revolve around me? It’s still all about me, isn’t it?”

Well!, my friend replied, I didn’t read it that way at all! These are good people—What do you want them to say? 

“NOTHING!! Let me read you something from a book I finished today. Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows: “There are times when any word is the wrong word; when only silence can prevail.” This is one of those times! If I posted on that Facebook thread I’d say, in my son’s words, “Let me serve you a large helping of shut the hell up!”

Oh my. I’m glad my friends love me, because that was not only rude, it was definitely a conversation stopper. Where did that come from?

Actually, I know exactly where that came from. This conversation took place while I was back in Minnesota during Spring break, getting my every-six-month Collegeville fix. I was staying with these friends in their apartment at the Ecumenical Institute where all of us had been resident scholars during the spring of 2009. At morning prayer on this particular day, the closing prayer had included the petition that God would assist us during the Lenten season in being responsive to “the fertility of silence.” An evocative phrase, “the fertility of silence,” especially in a world in which the white noise of television, radio, the internet, and just plain old daily life threatens to make silence into nothing more than a fossilized reminder of something that human beings used to have available. Some claim that “God is in the details”—I’m learning, rather, that God is in the silence. I’m reminded of a couple of lines from a beautiful Advent song I heard a few years ago at an Advent Lessons and Carols service: “As we await you, O God of silence, we embrace your holy night.” In response to our frequent complaints that God never says anything, perhaps we need to embrace the fertility of divine silence.

This should not be surprise to anyone who takes stories in the Bible seriously. Consider Elijah, for instance. In First Kings we find the prophet exhausted, fearful for his life, hiding in a cave from Queen Jezebel. Elijah has just scored a major victory over the forces of idolatry and for Yahweh by destroying the prophets of Baal on top of Mount Carmel. And Jezebel wants him dead.

Exhausted from running, Elijah eventually collapses and wants to die. After an angel makes Elijah breakfast while he sleeps and gets his batteries recharged, Elijah still feels very mistreated and sorry for himself. With what must have struck Elijah as a cosmically stupid question, the Lord quietly asks him “What are you doing here, Elijah?” “WHAT AM I DOING HERE?” Elijah sputters—“I’ve been the only one in the kingdom seeking to do your will, I’ve torn down their altars, I’ve killed the priests of Baal just as you told me to, AND SHE’S TRYING TO KILL ME!” Is that any way to treat your favorite prophet? In response, God says “come over here on top of this hill—I want to show you something.” In succession, Elijah experiences a rock-shattering wind, an earthquake, and a fire—perhaps similar to the fire that brought the victory on Mount Carmel a few days earlier. Elijah probably thought, “There you are! It’s about time! Now drop some of that on Ahab and Jezebel!” But—amazingly—“the Lord was not in the wind,” or the earthquake, or the fire. All of these are followed by “a still small voice,” or as another translation puts it, “sheer silence.” And in the midst of that silence, Elijah knows what he is to do.

Silence is divinely fertile because it shatters our expectation that God is transactional, that if we ask for X properly, we’ll get it. The transactional God is a projection of our human need to find at least a small part of reality that we can control. This is understandable, since the obvious truth that we are small fish in a large ocean of reality is never far below the level of consciousness. A wise person recently wrote that it’s a pretty good sign that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you hate, likes all the same people you like, and holds the same values that you do. There’s a reason why the first commandment is a prohibition against graven images—human beings are incurable idolaters. The ancient Israelites found Baal attractive because they thought they had him figured out. Elijah in the cave was upset because he thought he had God on a leash and found out otherwise. God is not transactional—God is indwelling. God is with me wherever I go, but never in ways reducible to formulas. As Jacob said after encountering the divine in a dream, “surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.”

I came out of my sabbatical three years ago with a mantra from Psalm 131: “Truly I have set my soul in silence and in peace; As a weaned child on its mother’s breast, so is my soul.” Silence reminds me, as a first grader told Kathleen Norris once, “to take my soul with me wherever I go.” When I remember that God is in the space of silence and peace within, I realize that the divine’s response to my need is something entirely unexpected but absolutely God-like. In an encounter with divine reality we do not hear a voice but acquire a voice; and the voice we acquire is our own.

Idols and Icons

The story is told that St. Augustine used to get annoyed with his students when, as he pointed toward something he wished them to consider, they focused their attention on his finger instead. Something tells me, though, that Augustine was not that disturbed with the misdirected attention. He was the author of Confessions, after all. Now I understand fully his stature, that only the Apostle Paul had more to do with the invention of the Christian religion than Augustine. But if I were to subtitle Confessions, I would call it “Look At Me!” “Look at me as I steal a bunch of pears with my buddies for no reason!” “Aren’t you impressed with my encyclopedic knowledge of Scripture?” “My struggles with sexual promiscuity are fascinating, are they not?” “Be astounded by my intellect as I defeat the Manicheans in debate with one hand tied behind my back!” “Isn’t my mother Monica interesting, particularly because she’s my mother?”

Obviously I’m not a big fan, so perhaps I being a tad bit unfair. Every human being is born believing that he or she is the center of the universe and is continually surprised when no one else agrees. By the time adulthood comes, most of us have learned social techniques that help us manage this natural hardwiring. But there are some adult activities that regularly tempt us to continue thinking “well perhaps I’m the center of the universe after all.” Augustine participated in two of these activities, as do I—writing and teaching.

I started thinking about this at a writers workshop a couple of summers ago in Collegeville, Minnesota, the place that has become my geographic center of spiritual gravity. I was having a ball. Essays were emerging, I saw two deer and an owl on the first day walking behind Lake Sagatagan, I had lunch with Brother John—it was all good. But I was reminded of what a foundationally selfish activity writing is. What on earth makes me think that it’s a good use of my time and someone else’s money for me to spend a week indulging in solitude, writing when I feel like it, eating when I feel like it, sleeping when the spirit moves me, strolling around aimlessly in outrageously perfect weather, with minimal structure and demands while Jeanne contends with real life at home?

Barbara Kingsolver suggests that a good question writers might want to ask themselves is “With Middlemarch and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in the world, why would anyone be interested in this?” The question is particularly pertinent for me when I’m writing first person essays, what the writer-in-residence at the writers workshop described as a combination of memoir and philosophy. I’ve been tiptoeing around the “memoir” tag for what I’m working on, because memoir is the literary genre that is most likely to be self-obsessed. But I do appear to be the central focus of my essays, and the first person singular pronoun is popping up a lot, so memoir it is. And why would anyone be interested in my life, my perspective on anything? Why would anyone other than my closest friends and family give a moment of attention to me? The answer is obvious—they wouldn’t. So if there is no better reason for someone to read what I’ve written than that I’m the one who has written it, then I’d better spend my time doing something else.

Fortunately, I’ve been working on this issue for quite a while now, just in a somewhat different context. I’ve been a teacher for a lot longer than I’ve been writing essays, and had to face the fact early on that teaching also has all the marks of an ego-centered activity. The whole structure of higher education is organized around the idea that students will pay thousands of dollars per year to sit regularly in the presence of experts who will, in various ways, shape and mold their young charges into something useful and marketable. I spent many years of hard work and a lot of money in order to get to be one the shapers and molders. So listen to me, and find as many ways possible to let me know how brilliant I am on a regular basis.

But that, of course, is not how learning happens. Over the years I’ve come to realize that it is vitally important for me, every day in the classroom, to remember the difference between an idol and an icon. Both idols and icons are meant to be looked at, and as such must be capable of attracting attention. But attention is intended to stop at the idol—it is the final focus of the attention being paid. An icon, on the other hand, directs the attention through to something beyond, something other than, the icon itself. The idol says “Look at me!”, while the icon says “Let me show you this over here.” When the classroom is at its best, the energy is iconic, not idolatrous. Augustine’s annoyance with his third century CE class arose because his students were treating him as an idol, when he was trying to be an icon. “Don’t look at me—look through me to see something greater and more interesting than any of us.”

My father, who was an itinerant Baptist minister, once told me about a plaque on the back of a pulpit in a church where he was preaching for the first time one Sunday morning. Pulpits apparently often have sayings on the preacher’s side—“Let the words of mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord my Strength and my Redeemer,” for instance. This plaque was unusual though. It bluntly asked What Are You Trying To Do To These People? And if your answer isn’t any better than “Trying to impress them with what I know, how smart I am, how spiritual I am, and how great I look in this suit,” then shut up and make it a short sermon. The same is true in the classroom and on the written page. What am I trying to do to these people, these students, those who might read this?

As I sat with the monks in the cavernous, yet intimate, St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville not long ago, the first line in our final response was “It is not you who are speaking.” It sure seems as if it is—that’s my voice in the classroom, those are my experiences and that’s my sense of humor woven into these words on the computer screen. If that’s all that’s going on, pay no attention. But every once in a while, maybe the teacher or the writer can be a point of contact between the familiar and something other, something transcendent and sacred. Don’t look at—look through. The full response at midday prayer was “It is not you who are speaking; It is the Spirit of God who speaks through you.”