Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI: “The Language of Silence”

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“Nothing resembles the language of God so much as does silence.”

Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMIMeister Eckhard wrote those words. What do they mean? Among other things, they speak of a deep mystery.

What language will we speak in heaven? We don’t know, but we have some inkling of it in the deep experiences of intimacy we have on earth. In our deepest experiences of intimacy and communion, we come together beyond words, in a silence that isn’t empty but is too full for words. In heaven, I suspect, just as in our deepest experiences of intimacy here, there won’t be a need for words. We will know and be known in a language beyond ordinary words, in the language of intimacy and the language of God.

We already experience this somewhat. Sometimes, for instance, we understand someone or feel understood by someone intuitively, beyond words, beyond anything we’ve ever spoken to each other, and often this understanding is deeper than the understanding we come to through normal conversation.

The same is true for intimacy within community. I remember doing a 30-day Ignatian retreat some years ago. About sixty of us were on the retreat and we arrived there as total strangers. The thirty days were spent in silence, except for celebrating Eucharist together each day in the chapel. We ate our meals in silence, never recreated with each other, and never, except for two very brief occasions early on in the retreat, had any conversations with each other at all. Yet, when the retreat ended we had the feeling that we knew each other more deeply than we would have had we socialized and talked during those days. The silence was a powerful language, stronger than words, and it brought us into community in a way that words often cannot.

I’ve experienced this too inside of religious community. I am a member of a missionary order, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, and one of the things our founder, St. Eugene de Mazenod, mandated for us was that, each day, we should sit together as a community in chapel for a long period of silence. My experience has been that whenever we do this, something akin to a “Quaker silence”, the silent time spent together does more to bind us into community than do any number of community meetings. Silence is a special language.

But that doesn’t put silence in opposition to words. Silence and words need each other. Words take on greater power when they issue forth from silence, just as they begin to lose their force when they are constant and never-ending. Conversely silence is more powerful after we have already come to know each other through words. There are things that we can only know through silence, just as there are things we can only know through conversations inside of a community.

That is why solitude is such paradox: Solitude, as we know, is not defined as being alone, but as being at peace, as being restful rather than restless. And we all know the strange anomalies that can happen here: Sometimes we are at a celebration with others, but we are too restless to enjoy the occasion or even to be present to it. Socializing with others paradoxically serves to heighten our restlessness and disquiet. Conversely, sometimes we are alone, away from others, but are restful, comfortable, and at peace inside of our own lives. Being alone paradoxically works to still our disquiet and silence is what brings us into community.

And so it is important that we try to learn the language of silence, just as we also try to learn the words that can help us know each other. There is a huge silence undergirding us and inside of us that is trying to draw us into itself. To enter that silence is to enter the reality of God and the reality of our real communion with each other. For this reason, all great religious traditions and all great spiritual writers emphasize the need for silence at times in our lives.

Sadly, we are too often afraid of silence, afraid of being alone, afraid of what we might meet there. Too often silence speaks to us of loneliness, of missing out on life, of being disconnected, of a being a tomb of non-life. And so we cling to each other and look for conversations, amusements, and distractions that can fill in the silent spaces in our lives. Ultimately this running away from silence is founded unconsciously on the fear that, deep down, something is missing, both inside of the world and inside ourselves and we are best to cling to whatever can protect us from that painful truth.

But that fear is unfounded. As Thomas Merton put it, there is a hidden wholeness at the heart of things and that hidden wholeness can only be discovered if we get to the deepest level of things. And the language we need to get there is the language of silence – the language of God and the language of intimacy.