Wednesday, January 29, 2014


I've been interested a lot lately in the idea of silence. You might not think much of this concept, especially seeing as silence is getting harder and harder to come by in today's world. But there is something sacred about the absence of sound, an explicitly divine character which I find difficult to explain directly. Thankfully, others have done it for me. In what follows, I will quote the works of several philosophers and show you their take on what makes silence such a spiritually-important phenomenon.

First, I will quote the beginning of 19th-century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard's short work Lily of the Field, Bird of the Air:

"From the lily and the bird as teachers, let us learn: silence, or learn to be silent. Surely it is speech that distinguishes humanity above the animal, and then, if you like, far above the lily. But because the ability to speak is an advantage, it does not follow that the ability to be silent would not be an art or would be an inferior art. On the contrary, because the human being is able to speak, the ability to be silent is an art, and a great art precisely because this advantage so easily tempts him. But this he can lean from the silent teachers, the lily and the bird: "Seek first God's kingdom and his righteousness." But what does this mean, what am I to do, or what is the effort that can be said to seek  to aspire to God's kingdom? Shall I see about getting a position commensurate who my talents and abilities in order to be effective in it? No, you shall first seek God's kingdom. Shall I then go out and proclaim this doctrine to the world? No, you shall first seek God's kingdom. But then in a certain sense it us nothing I shall do? Yes, quite true, in a certain sense it is nothing. In the deepest sense you shall make yourself nothing, become nothing before God, learn to be silent. In this silence is the beginning, which is to seek first God's kingdom."

In the scripture from which Kierkegaard's treatise gets its title, (Matthew 6: 25-34) Jesus encourages his disciples to forgo seeking food, drink, or clothing for the eternal goal of salvation. And while this goal may involve reading your scriptures, going to church, or praying, Kierkegaard here observes that the kingdom itself is not identical with any of these things. If we seek to read the scriptures simply for the sake of reading the scriptures, we miss the point of spirituality entirely. These spiritual activities are merely lenses through which we can perceive divine light, meaning that to focus on them alone ignores the overarching goal to which they allow us to come closer. 

To have true peace, we must cease desiring things for their own sake and instead seek first God's kingdom. The desire for Heaven must thus lie at the very forefront of our will, meaning that we should not strive to do anything unless it lies within our desire to follow the will of God. But Kierkegaard doesn't just mean this in the most obvious sense. Instead, we must abandon even our desire for spiritual peace and freedom from sin, for even these are manifestations of our selfish will to change.

You may wonder, then, what it is that a person should do. How can we follow the will of God, after all, if we act selfishly whichever way we turn? The answer, it seems, lies in silence. We must let the loud buzzing of our selfish will subside into quiet stillness, and allow the love of God to work silently within us. For only this love can bring peace.

Next, consider this quotation from the beginning of 17th-century mystic Jakob Boehme's work The Suprasensual Life:

"The student said to the teacher, 'How may I come to that life beyond the senses that I may see God and hear God speak?' The teacher said, 'If you can swing yourself up for a moment into that in which no creature dwells, then you will hear what God speaks.'

The student said, 'Is that near or far?' The teacher said, 'It is within you. If you could remain silent from all of your willing and sensing for one hour, then you will hear unutterable words of God.'

The student said, 'How may I hear when I keep silent from sensing and willing?' The teacher said, 'If you keep silent from sensing and willing of your self, then the eternal hearing, seeing, and speaking will be revealed within you, and God will hear and see through you. Your own hearing, willing, and seeing hinder you, so that you do not see or hear God.'

The student spoke, 'With what shall I hear and see God, if God is beyond nature and creaturely life?' The teacher spoke, 'If you would remain silent, then you are what God was before nature and creatureliness, that from which God created your nature and creatureliness. So hear and see with what God saw and heard in you, before your own willing, seeing, and hearing began.'"

Boehme also believes that silence is divine, but  makes some bolder claims to that effect than Kierkegaard ever does. He believes that Jesus spoke more or less literally when he said that "the Kingdom of God is within you", and that you can access the Kingdom if you perceive themselves as you truly are. But the more we follow the whims of our individual will and the demands of our senses, the more we separate ourselves from this inner connection to God. This also means, of course, the more we abandon our own will and way of looking at things, the more we become able to see past the shallow surface of our ego to the divinity that lies deep within. And this happens through silence.

Silence is more than just the absence of sound. For Kierkegaard and Boehme, it actually represents a viewpoint in which nothing separates the soul from reality, where the dichotomies of great and small, sacred and common, and even subject and object become erased. When we become silent, we bring heaven down to earth, or rather, we perceive that heaven and earth were never really separate to begin with. For all dichotomies are a form of noise, an oscillating vibration that becomes still in the embrace of silence.
Silence lies at the very heart of reality. When a person rests in silence, they never concern themselves with going anywhere; they realize that they have only ever been here, and they are perfectly content with that. They realize that silence is the mother of all opposites, and that being silent is a way of transforming opposition into love. Finally, they see that this world is much greater than it seems to most. For behind all the traffic, the pedestrians, and the TV, there does not only lie silence, but the brilliance of God's light. 

To achieve this transcendent state, we must offer up to God our selfish desire to change the world by our own efforts. This world, after all, belongs to God, and our attempts to usurp His power merely add ripples on its figurative surface.The only way we can ever hope to achieve peace, hope, or salvation is to silence our individual will, and so let the eternal will of God become revealed in us. The world, after all, is a kind of river, and the will of God is the current that continually ushers us forward to our individual destinies. If we try to swim in a direction that makes sense to us, we will only end up exhausting ourselves in an effort to swim upstream. For the only real way to be at peace in this life is to stop striving for it. We must learn to be still and trust the stream, knowing beyond all question that God will always lead us forward to the place we are meant to be. 

Embracing silence is hardly naivité or blind faith. It is rather a profound trust of reality, a deep acceptance of God's biblical declaration that "the world is good" (Genesis 1:31). When we find peace with the silence behind all things, we will suddenly find that the world becomes noticeably smaller: not in a claustrophobic way, but in the sense of knowing that "all things will work together for our good" (Romans 8:28). Instead of feeling the existential anxiety that comes from seeing the world as absurd, the silent person comes to see the universe as nothing more frightening than a nursery in which to grow and learn. And instead of perceiving the conflict of opposites, they will see each form of opposition as a kind of embrace.

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