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.

3 thoughts on “The Fertility of Silence

  1. susansink

    Great blog, Lance. I spent about 6 hours yesterday building a Facebook page for a book I’m self-publishing because, well, you HAVE to have a Facebook presence, right? The burden of modern communication often weighs on me. At the same time, e-mail and Skype have allowed me to be present to two friends in very important ways as they go through difficult times far away. But that exchange you shared is classic. There’s a real noisiness to how we experience the world…

    Reply

Your comments mean a lot to me!