Thursday, December 19, 2013

Out of Silence

A reflection offered at the 2013 Advent Silent Days at the Bishop’s Ranch, Healdsburg, California.

Just about everyone who studies music in formal settings long enough hears the apocryphal story of a student who observes her famous teacher one day sitting at the keyboard gazing intently at a music score in silence. The intensity of concentration is so striking that the student strains to see the score herself but dares not say a word. As the minutes go by in silence, the student slowly screws up her courage to finally ask out loud,

“What are you studying so intently?”

Her master teacher breaks his gaze from the pages and looks up at the student with equal intensity and simply says, “Music.”

Nervously, the student replies, “Yes, there are a lot of notes. . .”

“No, my dear,” says the master teacher, “Music is what happens between the notes. That is what must be studied.”

John Cage, one of the more colorful 20th-century composers, famously presented his koan-esque 4"33, in which a performer came out on stage and simply sat down at the instrument or music stand in silence for the time allotted, then got up, took a bow, and exited.

At a more superficial level, it was an exercise at teaching an audience to learn to listen to itself – a bit of a poke-in-the-eye from performers to their patrons who would invariably cough, wriggle, talk, or otherwise distract their way through a carefully planned and rehearsed musical masterwork. At a deeper level, it was part of Cage’s exploration that any sound – even the sound of an audience – could be considered music. But more deeply still, it was a riddle very much along the lines of the Zen koans Cage himself must have known, such as:

「隻手声あり、その声を聞け」 (Sekishu-goe ari, sono goe o kike)

Literally: “There is the sound of one hand; listen to this sound.”

Or as is often better translated into English:

“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

More so than the Western question about the noise of unobserved falling trees, the head-splitting notion of a hand clapping without its partner, like 4'33, leads us into the universe-old mystery of silence: a place where, if we but allow ourselves, we might be drawn into the primordial divine mystery.

It might be easy for us, here on retreat, to fall into pride at our taking silence seriously. This is the time of year we have a penchant for criticizing our commercial, noise-filled culture, one that seems ever more resistant to silence: crowding us and the world as it does with words, noise, and every sensory input imaginable.

But are we Christians, however traditional we regard ourselves, all that better?

We have been taught to value words so much, we even talk about the Word, incarnate in our midst this time of year. Our reverence for scripture and the sacred tasks and words of our structures and institutions have been the subject of bloodshed and reformation; we wrangle over them to this day. We preach, write, discuss, sing, and pray out loud or utter the words in our own heads and hearts in the name of discernment, seeking, and intercession. We drown out the silence with accumulated tradition and book-learning and spoken wisdom passed down across the ages.

How easily we can forget the space between the words and the notes, or the silence that fills the stories of our most beloved characters of scripture:

What is the silence about between the Annunciation, Mary’s visit with Elizabeth, and the story of Jesus’ birth? The silence about the certain silence of sleepless nights as Mary pondered mystery? Or Joseph slowly stretched himself beyond all convention to grasp the strange promise they were called to wait for, protect, and then bring to birth?

What is the silence built into the very structure of the cosmos, from the huge empty, voids between the galaxies, stars, and planets to the equally huge empty spaces between the nuclei of atoms and their orbiting electrons? What is the silence about between friends, between longtime spouses and lovers, between members of community who have shared all words until no more will come, or no more are necessary? Or the silence between a question and an answer? Or the silence in the face of suffering, awe, or perplexity?

We focus so much attention on words and sound, we tend to forget that they are always a tiny fraction of reality, and only a mere flimsy representation of what is. Like matter, they occupy the tiniest, ever-shrinking fraction of space in the universe. And they are fickle, diffuse, and fungible. It is the silence that is eternal and unnervingly real and – ironically – painfully tangible and ever-present. Scientists tell us now it is just as likely this reality will end in silence as anything else, when the boundaries of time and space are stretched out into the silent void so much that matter itself will cool, fall apart, and disintegrate.

And yet, we Christians sing “Alleluia” into the silence of the grave, and perceive resurrection in the open, silent, empty tomb.

Our reality, our spirituality – like music, like relationship, like speech – is bounded and defined by silence.

I am not at all sure which is more terrifying to us: recognizing God’s awful silence that fills the space between illumination in our lives – much like that darkness that occupies space between the stars; or that humbling realization that without other words of authority in our lives, our own egos will attempt to project our own self-serving words onto the divine silence.

The mystics have always occupied that endless spiritual dilemma, and little wonder they walk the razor’s edge between madness and enlightenment: so closely that “sensible” people often wisely avoid them. Silence carries an enormous risk, and really, the more I contemplate it, a divine risk.

God risks losing us by being silent. We might think when confronted by silence that God isn’t there, or we might end up filling the void with our own words and agendas and making them into yet more gods that fail us.

But those who dare the silent path anyway, that razor’s edge between madness and enlightenment, dare to grow up by confronting the divine silence of this life. If God doesn’t have an immediate answer or grace for every prayer or riddle life brings, then we have a chance to learn the greater spiritual virtues of patience, humility. . .maybe even wisdom. We have a chance to watch ourselves grow up beyond selfishness, ambition, and our own controlling egos; to be opened to the divine mystery at work between the words, between the notes on the page, before the cosmic dance begins, before even the first word is uttered or the first note sounds. . .

Meister Eckhart, in a sermon on the incarnation (“Where God Enters”) offers up the teaching of a sage:

“When all things lay in the midst of silence, then leapt there down into me from on high, from the royal throne, a secret word.”

He posits that at the very center of our being, the very kernel of our souls, is a place of unreachable silence, beyond all thought, all word, all sound, all music, even beyond all our awareness.

And that is where the incarnation begins.

We are made of star-stuff, after all, and the same space in all matter is in us. So are we also  made up of voids of understanding, the yawning silences of unknowing, great rifts and inconsistencies that no end of reason, research, or worldly wisdom will resolve. We are not all solid or all sound. Nor will we ever be. To believe otherwise denies an essential key of our spiritual reality, and reduces us to less – far less even – than we truly are.

Silence sets this distorting denial aside and opens us to a new grace.

It is the silence outside that risks reflecting to us the silence within. Can we keep watch there long enough to glimpse our true emptiness? And dare we hope that it is that emptiness, that silence, that huge space before all time, that silence between the words, thoughts, and notes that will be the cradle in us for God’s true song be born?

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