The Spiritual Strenuousness of Silence

Last weekend I joined some family members for a camping trip to Skull Island, a spot about thirty minutes outside of Chattanooga we used to go to at least once or twice a year for a good part of my childhood, all five of us kids and the parents packing like sardines into our big dome tent until my brothers and I came into possession of little one-man G.I. Joe themed pup tents. Instead of spending the weekend fishing, swimming, and biking around the small island, the way I filled my days there growing up, the majority of the weekend was taken up with reading and sitting in silent reflection under the full moon, staring into the fire or off across the water, the lights from the nearby nuclear power plant lighting up the northern sky. That is, during those times when the silence wasn’t shattered by the loud country music or college football games blaring from the car stereos of the rednecks occupying the campsite at the center of the island – and I use the term “redneck” only because of the large rebel flag posted outside their tent with the word “REDNECK” superimposed in big white letters over the center of the flag, next to the confederate flag unadorned with redundant descriptors.

The two books I had with me, both perfectly suited for reading on a lazy Saturday afternoon or late into the evening, were Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies and Frederick Buechner’s Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale, the latter serving perfectly as an example of the careful and proper use of language advocated by the first. Both books require, and reward, attentive reading. McEntyre discusses this kind of reading and writing in her chapter Love the Long Sentence: “Slowing down, for a contemporary reader, is a countercultural act. Nearly everything in the momentum of modern life urges us onward at an accelerating pace. The non-skimmable sentence with an undertow that carries us backward to reconsider almost as strongly as it moves us forward to learn more is a sentence which insists that, to borrow a line from Roethke, we “take our waking slow.” In doing so, we are required to consider possibilities…”

In the chapter Why Worry About Words, she addresses the issue of ever-present noise which serves to distract us from needed silence, and consequently cheapens our words.

“The sheer volume of use is another language issue comparable to increased use of electricity, land, and fossil fuels. I have surveyed students regularly over the past several years, asking them how much silence they experience in the course of a day. Upwards of 90 percent now claim they do all their studying to background music or in the presence of background conversation. Many of them multitask as they study , fielding instant text messages and cell-phone calls while working on papers that too often exhibit the superficial thought and repetitive, imprecise language that is the inevitable result of work done under such conditions. In other words, their environment is glutted with words, sung, spoken, written, to be consumed thoughtlessly like disposable products, often becoming buffers against the pain of thought or the spiritual strenuousness of silence.”

Serving as a point of connection between the two books that I was reading, Frederick Buechner, in his chapter on The Gospel as Tragedy, carries this discussion of silence over into the meaning and expression of the Gospel.

“The preaching of the Gospel is a telling of the truth or the putting of a sort of frame of words around the silence that is truth because truth in the sense of fullness, of the way things are, can at best be only pointed to by the language of poetry-of metaphor, image, symbol-as it is used in the prophets of the Old Testament and elsewhere. Before the Gospel is a word, it is a silence, a kind of presenting of life itself so that we see it not for what at various times we call it-meaningless or meaningful, absurd, beautiful-but for what it truly is in all its complexity, simplicity, mystery. The silence of Jesus in answer to Pilate’s question about truth seems such a presenting as does also in a way the silence of the television news with the sound turned off-the real news is what we see and feel, not what Walter Cronkite tells us-or the silence the Psalmist means when he says, “Be silent and know that I am God.” In each case it is a silence that demands to be heard because it is a presented silence, and the preacher must somehow himself present this silence and mystery of truth by speaking what he feels, not what he ought to say, by speaking forth not only the light and the hope of it but the darkness as well, all of it, because the Gospel has to do with all of it. Since words are his chief instrument, words are what he chiefly has to use but remembering always that the silence that his words frame-the silence that his words are born out of and that his words break and that his words are swallowed up by-may well convey the mystery of truth better than the words themselves can just as the empty space inside a church may well convey better than all the art and architecture of a church the mystery of that in which we live and move and have our being. We put frames of words around silence and shells of stone and wood around emptiness, but it is the silence, the emptiness themselves, that finally matter and out of which the Gospel comes as a word.”

In the end, the weekend served as a needed reminder of the importance of silence, of taking time away from electronic distractions to focus completely on the words on the page and the thoughts in my head, a reminder which will hopefully continue to do its work even when I can’t make an escape to a campsite.

2 thoughts on “The Spiritual Strenuousness of Silence”

  1. “We put frames of words around silence and shells of stone and wood around emptiness, but it is the silence, the emptiness themselves, that finally matter and out of which the Gospel comes as a word.”

    I love, love, love this quote. So true. Thanks for giving me your link.

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