By Timothy Jones
On the surface, the short quote seems profound enough, and jarring in a good way: “Silence is God’s first language.”
The line is variously attributed online to the Sufi mystic Rumi or to St. John of the Cross. While the 16th-century contemplative saint did speak of the importance of stilling our words in God’s presence, the remark belongs to Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk and popularizer of centering prayer. Keating adds that next to God’s silence, “everything else is a poor translation.”
And there is something intriguing in all this. I want the aphorism — whoever said it — to remind me how rarely I sit in awed quiet. In our creatureliness before an immense God, we indeed need to still our voices, often. Silence can enshrine wonderful communion. It can become a wonderfully fruitful discipline. Essential, even.
Still, for some time I’ve sensed that the saying’s angle on silence doesn’t do justice to the richness of God’s approach to us. In speaking about God’s first language, the implication seems to suggest primary. I’ve seen the motto-like saying in sermons and blog posts and memes, and while it might remind us to cultivate silence (important for any encounter), it does not adequately picture God’s many ways of communicating. I’ve even wondered if the saying is pastorally confusing — blunting our expectations, obscuring what’s possible in the presence of God.
Still, before retiring it altogether, there is something to heed. We know from our most basic and intimate moments of relating how words can spoil or trivialize and how a break from verbosity can be a balm in a noisy world. A silence borne of communion can be rich indeed.
“The Christian contemplative tradition speaks of what we discover in an awe-suffused freedom from words — a meeting with a God who is beyond the limits of any language.”
I’ve always loved the story of the budding friendship of Southern novelists William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. She’d never dreamed of actually meeting the iconic writer, she recounted. But some mutual friends took her to his house, where, among other parts of a neighborly visit, they stood around a piano and sang hymns. The next year, Faulkner asked Welty to go sailing with him on a lake. “I was so happy he invited me,” she said. “I had trouble getting in the boat. … [But I] waded out in the mud, got in the boat, and he took me sailing. I don’t think either of us spoke. That’s all right. It was kind of magical to me. I was in the presence.”
I like to linger at that picture of those ridiculously articulate writers leaving words behind for a spell while they floated along and the lake water lapped gently while they communed.
And some mornings, it seems like something similar happens when I sit still in Presence. I become aware of the Ineffable (a great word in our Book of Common Prayer that has Latin roots that mean literally incapable of being said or spoken of).
Indeed, the Christian contemplative tradition does show a great fondness for the practice of silence. That tradition speaks of what we discover in an awe-suffused freedom from words — a meeting with a God who is beyond the limits of any language.
And John of the Cross, also known for his exploration of the “dark night of the soul,” does stress silence. For John it is silence that allows us to commune. It’s not an absence of speech so much as a transcending of it. It is a paradoxical silence that has much insight and encouragement hidden within. For we sometimes get so caught up in our talking that we stop leaving spaces. Thomas Merton famously said, “Music is pleasing not only because of the sound but because of the silence that is in it: without the alternation of sound and silence there would be no rhythm.” So also with our often incessantly chatty world and gabby web-o-sphere.
All good. But some of my dis-ease with stopping in silence comes from my experiencing of its hard side. Silence sometimes is no unalloyed blessing.
Early in our marriage, before I learned more mature ways of expressing frustration, I sometimes withdrew from my wife when conflict arose. I’d reply with monosyllables (if at all), turn my back, and turn silence into a weapon. My withholding words and pulling away left Jill confused, hurt. While I suppose I communicated something, it took seasoning to help me realize how punishing a lack of response can be — not only not constructive but also corrosive of growth in intimacy. Better an angry word from me, I discovered, than icy, calculated withdrawal. For some of us, silence has indeed inflicted pain, made us wonder if we are loved. It can inject uncertainty, a sense of being off-kilter in a relationship. It can lead to a feeling of forsakenness — just as I’ve experienced from the withdrawal of others in my life, whose forgetting me or whose lack of a returned call wounded.
All the more so with what some depict as the cold silence of the universe. Or of a distant deity who goes mute, diddling quietly away while we sit smack in the middle of crisis and we punch again and again a kind of cosmic doorbell. Or maybe, in some initial moment of discovery and spiritual exhilaration, a door swings wide, but not forever.
C.S. Lewis, in A Grief Observed, famously wrote in his pain at losing his wife, that you go to God “when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.”
It is the loss of a loved one and even the fear of a silence from the heavens that compounds grief. “The longer you wait,” Lewis keened, “the more emphatic the silence will become.” No romanticizing of a seemingly quiet God here. Nothing resembling a motto that glosses over our existential dread of being cosmically snubbed.
Reading a Jewish commentary on Genesis, the monumental volume in the JPS Torah Commentary, has further helped me put a finger on my disquietude about a too-exuberant, not-well-nuanced ascription of silence to God. Nahum Sarna assigns great significance to God’s voice in the Genesis accounts of creation. When creating, I read, God said, and out of the chaos a world appeared. The divine word, Sarna says, “shatters the primal cosmic silence and signals the birth of a new cosmic order.” What is inchoate becomes ordered in response to the blessing of divine speech.
And that gives a clue about God and us, Sarna continues, as we see God bless the creatures of land and sea that God has made. God offers a general blessing to the creation of fish and fowl, spoken, so to speak, to no one in particular (except perhaps, I’d add, the co-creating members of the Trinity). But when it comes to the making of humans, God speaks to them. Here the “transcendent God of creation,” Sarna exults, “transforms Himself into the immanent God, the personal God, who enters into unmediated communion with human beings.”
And that remarkable picture of a God overflowing in communicative delight continues. Much of Scripture as it unfolds conveys a sense of the gift of being addressed by God with guidance and assurance and even sometimes judgment, the latter of which pains us but reminds us at least we are not ignored, we are noticed.
God chose a prophet with hard words for oppressive kings to speak something about God’s investment and involvement, in a reading from Isaiah: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent.”
Especially in the Incarnation does it become clear how too much accent on a merely silent presence contrasts with the biblical picture of a God whose coming took the form of a figure of speech. For the Word, who was with God and was God, took on flesh — became vividly visible and audible in real human affairs. Not just a subtle presence, this, but a nearness born of a Person with whom conversation is possible. One whose glories have very much to do with revealing and announcing.
Perhaps no aspect of our faith opens the communicative picture of God more than the Trinity. I know that for many in our culture, the Trinity muddies the supposedly simple message of an itinerant Palestinian teacher. But I believe a trinitarian view indicates that God’s first language is communion, self-expression. That’s what we see in Jesus — at his baptism, at the Transfiguration.
In the Trinity we see a God who from before time already exists in delighted communion — even conversation. Our words pale, of course, placed anywhere near a heavenly language beyond the limits of speech or vocabulary. There may be a bit of divine condescension in this picture — a stooping to the rudiments of human speech that approaches the anthropomorphic. But the idea is that among the three Persons, God is used to dialogue (trialogue?). We speak of “pregnant” silences for good reason — for the divine richness and life busily at work — whether word-rich or quieter.
For our parts, for our participation in that divine interplay, we prepare ourselves in prayer and worship and spiritual exercises to be noticed, addressed, loved. Our liturgies, for all their words, school us in expectant waiting for insights beyond words. Our little quiet moments open to a grand silence. Prayer in this climate is ultimately and supremely a matter of communion with a God who speaks — to us. Silence is just one of the many, crazily multiplied languages God uses to get through to us.
So it’s not absence of speech here that deserves our keenest attention, but communication on the most profound levels. For prayer is not, Mark McIntosh writes, “to succumb to a final speechlessness but to become free enough from self-preoccupied speech so as to be available for that infinite dialogue which catches up our language into its supernal converse, namely the communion of the trinitarian Persons.”
Words are never adequate, of course. Our praise and worship, Rowan Williams reminds us, have us answer “to a reality not already embedded in the conventions of speech.” The psalmist got at this when the well-worn words encourage God’s people to “be still,” to resist the temptation always to fritter away time spent in God’s presence with agitated prattle. The Christian contemplative tradition, John of the Cross, Thomas Keating, all are right to urge us to stop our running mouths.
But such stillness never ends with itself or a mere moment of untrammeled calm. God’s people are asked to be still in order, as the Divine Voice says, “to know that I am God.”
In his essay on John’s Gospel, novelist and essayist Reynolds Price writes that the one sentence humankind craves to hear is, “The Maker of all things loves and wants me.” There are few days in which I don’t need to hear precisely those words.
So while we may sometimes meet God in a wordlessness beyond imagery or form, the God of Trinity reminds us that ultimately that God by nature is self-expressive. God overflows in communicative delight. Yes, we hear in the silences — sometimes only there — and yes, we attend to our lives and work even amid the sometime silence of God.
We can do so because God has been delightfully carrying on a conversation of trinitarian proportions from before time. The great grace of it all is how we get invited in — to commune, and to hear the Voice that we most long to hear, a Word that bridges chasms of silence.
The Rev. Timothy Jones is rector of St. John’s, Halifax, Virginia. He is the author of several books on prayer and the spiritual life, including the Art of Prayer: A Simple Guide to Conversation with God, and he blogs at revtimothyjones.com.