This is another essay that I wrote a few years ago, shortly before I became Orthodox, and never got to publishing. I thought that it may be worth publishing it here as it relates to things that I also keep coming across here and so have expanded and updated it slightly in the hope that it may be helpful. Of course, there is more that can be said on related matters if I ever get to it…
A few years ago, while I was still in the Netherlands, I became aware of a certain media interest in monasticism. Despite their declining numbers and the secularization of society, monasteries continued to fascinate people and had even become rather fashionable destinations for those in search of some sort of inner peace.
What struck me then about this phenomenon was that it was fundamentally redefining monasticism. I read an article that managed to explain the meaning of monasticism for a broad public without once mentioning God or Christ. Instead, it told us that monastics withdraw from society in order to search for silence, for the heart of their life is concerned with what happens in this silence.
That silence is important for the monastic life is indisputable. But for a concept such as “silence” to come to define monasticism, even to the point of replacing any reference to God, is at the very least rather problematic. For Saint Benedict, the necessary condition for becoming a monk was that one truly sought God. Silence can be an important means by which we seek God, but we also need to ask ourselves what silence means. Is silence something neutral? How and with what is silence filled? What is the relationship between word and silence? Is the silence of a Christian monastery different to that of a Buddhist monastery? And what is it that actually happens in the silence?
Since coming back to South Africa, I have become aware that there is a similar dynamic at work among many people who are seeking after “spirituality” – something that I keep hoping to write more about. All too often I have seen references to retreats, courses, groups, and “inspirational” quotes (I could name names but I won’t) that originate in a Christian context but would seem to replace any specifically Christian content with a reference to silence, or solitude, or the absolute. An experience of this silence is what we are told that we need to seek, often by contrasting it to dogma which is invariably viewed in negative terms. But, once more, what is this silence? What is its relationship to Christian tradition and to dogma?
Reflecting on this I was reminded of the words of Saint Ignatius. He was bishop of Antioch and around the beginning of the second century was transported to Rome where he was martyred by being fed to the lions. During this journey he wrote seven letters to different Churches and these are among the greatest treasures which the early Church has passed on to us. These epistles are not only a witness to his ardent faith and his love for Christ, but they also reveal a deep theology that knows how to express the intimate connection between silence and proclamation. Saint Ignatius wrote: “The one who has truly mastered the utterances of Jesus will also be able to apprehend His silence, and thus reach full spiritual maturity, so that his own words have the force of actions and his silence the significance of speech.” (Eph. 15)
For Saint Ignatius, both silence and proclamation are rooted in the mutual relations of the Holy Trinity, in an inter-connectedness that is mirrored in our relationships in the Church. When he speaks of silence, Saint Ignatius points, in the first place, to the silence of the Father. Jesus Christ is “Word of His own from silence proceeding, who in all that He was and did gladdened the heart of the One who sent Him.” (Mag. 8) He is also the One who, in the power of the Holy Spirit, leads us back to the Father. “… in me there is … only a murmur of living water that whispers within me, ‘Come to the Father.’” (Rom. 7)
The words of Jesus Christ come forth out of this deep silence that He bears, for “what He achieved, even by His silences was well worthy of the Father.” (Eph. 15) There is a power in this silence. It is not simply the absence of sound, but a deep energy that streams out in revelation and in the victory of Christ over death:
Mary’s virginity was hidden from the prince of this world; so was her child-bearing, and so was the death of the Lord. All these three trumpet-tongued secrets were brought to pass in the deep silence of God. (Eph. 19)
It is this silence that is guarded and transmitted in the community of the Church. For Saint Ignatius, the Church is no abstract institution, but a rather a living Body; indeed, he calls faith “the Fesh of the Lord” and love “the Blood of Jesus Christ.” It is above all the Eucharist that creates the bond of unity in the Church and it is for this reason that one may only celebrate the Eucharist in communion with the bishop.
Have a single service of prayer which everybody attends; one united supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and innocent joyfulness. All of you together, as though you were approaching the only existing temple of God and the only altar, speed to the one and only Jesus Christ – who came down from the one and only Father, is eternally with that One, and to that One is now returned. (Mag. 7)
It is most especially the presence of the bishop that makes the unity of the Church present and Saint Ignatius expects his readers to be united with their bishop. “Where the bishop is to be seen, there let his people be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is present, we have the world-wide Church.” (Smy. 8) While Saint Ignatius is known for his strong emphasis on the role of the bishop, he does not see the bishop as simply the head of an institution, but rather as someone carries and reveals a much deeper reality. He recapitulates in his person the whole ecclesial community.
Father Boris Bobrinskoy has pointed out the relationship that Saint Ignatius sees between, on the one hand, silence as an attribute of the heavenly Father, and, on the other hand, silence as an attribute of the bishop. Saint Ignatius writes that “a bishop is never so much a bishop as when he keeps silence.” (Eph. 7) This may sound strange, for the bishop, like all who proclaim the Gospel, must use language and words. However, what Father Boris is pointing to is the deep silence of the Father that is the origin both of the Divine Word and of all the words of the Church. As Vladimir Lossky wrote, there is a “margin of silence” that accompanies all the words of the Church’s tradition. Without attention to this silence, without an awareness of the enormous depths that the Church’s words carry, the Church’s words become hollow and are no longer capable of speaking to people.
We are called to take refuge in both the words of Jesus and in the deep silence of the Father which these words reveal. This is no neutral absence of words, but rather a deeply meaningful silence. It is a silence with a clear content that witnesses to the reality of God’s power in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a silence that makes us aware of His continued presence in the Church and which has consequences for our lives which may far exceed our understanding and our expectations.
If we ask what it is that happens in silence then we must answer that what happens there is precisely the same as what happens in the Church. We come into contact with the depths of the Christian revelation that is able to transform us and lead us to God. Without attention to this silence, the words of the Christian tradition become hard, abstract and without power. But without a fundamental connection to the words which the Church has passed on to us through the centuries, silence also loses its power and becomes at best something therapeutic and at worst a mirror for our own inner disorder and self-delusion.