Re-membering the work of silence in Christianity

/ 22 June 2016

Lately I have been reading and pondering women mystics across the ages, and what we need to glean from them for engaging in adaptive action today. I have been deeply moved by Maggie Ross’ writing on the “work of silence.” She’s an Anglican solitary, and writes eloquently of this practice in her book Silence: A User’s Guide.

(5) The simmering conflict between hierarchy and silence erupted once again in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon. Institutional and imperial advocates sought to nail down definitions so that everyone would believe in the same way. They were opposed by those who understood the provisionality of language, who sought to restrain the temptation to define, categorize, and politicize the indefinable, which they regarded as blasphemous. (12) … for what makes us human is not language, tool use, artifice, or self-consciousness – current research is showing us that many animals have these gifts as well – but rather the ability of the human mind to come full circle and forget itself in silence. (14) If we are to recover our balance – and our humanity – we need to unblock the flow of communication between the limited world of our self-consciousness that is linear, finite, two-dimensional, static, and dead, and our core silence – our deep mind – that is global, infinite, dynamic, and multi-dimensional. It is a mistake to say that the former is “rational” and the latter “irrational.” (127) … the human detachment from the environment entails the degrading of this formerly organic understanding of the mind, both the refusal to undertake the work of silence that opens the person to direct perception, and the absence of self-forgetful engagement and disinterested self-observation. The dis-equilibrium of human beings in their destructive relation to the ecology today reflects the dis-equilibrium of the modern mind. (128) Ignorance of – or the refusal to undertake – the work of silence invariably increases the momentum of ecological destruction. Without self-forgetful engagement with the living non-human context at the deepest level, a vicious cycle develops, leading to an ever more deeply degraded and de-contextualized humanity.   (147-148) As Archbishop Desmond Tutu was fond of saying during the protests against apartheid in South Africa: “If governments knew how subversive contemplative prayer is, they would ban it.” Those who choose the work of silence raise awkward questions, they point out that the emperor has no clothes on. They are labeled “troublemakers” for exposing prevailing fallacies, for naming the other groups’ deliberate deafness to different points of view; for saying that this chosen denial is culpable.