Thursday, July 22, 2010

Silence and Speech

Recently I was visiting with my friend, Steve, and his 19 month-old son, Kieran.  I've seen Kieran almost weekly since his birth and it has been amazing to see how quickly he grows and changes.  This last visit he was vigorously ordering Steve about, with a particular interest in commanding "Daddy crawl" and then, as his father scooted about on hands and knees, delightedly pushing him from behind.  "Mommy up!" was another favorite, reminding me of my own son's cry of "Uppie" when he wanted to be carried.

I remarked to Steve that it was fascinating to observe Kieran exploring the power of words to make things happen.  Steve responded that Kieran also is learning, less happily, that words don't always secure what we want.  Indeed!

Even so, words can be powerful.  They can create or destroy.  As the Letter of James puts it, "How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire." (James 3:5b-6)  In his book, Spaces for the Sacred, Philip Sheldrake reminds us of the importance of the practice of silence as a prelude to what Buddhists refer to as "right speech."  Edifying speech emerges from silence.
The monastic tradition from its origins has witnessed to the truth that it is important to take care with words.  Language without thought can be misunderstood and destructive.  'One of the old men said, "In the beginning, when we came together, we spoke to the good of souls, we advanced and ascended to heaven; now when we come together we fall into slander, and we drag one another to hell.'"  A key to monastic spirituality is the centrality of discernment and this applies above all to speech.  This enables the person to distinguish between language that is destructive and language that brings life.  Words, most of all, only have value it they are an expression of a life of integrity.  An old man said, 'Spiritual work is essential, it is for this we have come to the desert.  It is very hard to teach with the mouth that which one does not practise in the body.'  Silence, therefore, is not anti-social nor self-punishment but a necessary reticence in order to correct over-hasty or unproductive speech. (pp. 105-106)
Perhaps this is why Master Eckhart famously said that "Nothing is so much like God as silence."  It from the place of contemplative insight and awareness that we gain the perspective we need to speak rightly and well - or not at all.  It is from the abyss of silence that the creative Word - and word - emerges. 

In a sense, then, our use of language is a continual opportunity to practice discernment, the cultivation of a wide-open awareness of the presence and will of God in our lives.  Each speech act can be an expression of prayer, an alignment of our will and our lives with that which is life-giving.  All speech, like prayer, has the capacity to give expression to the deepest desire of the heart for wholeness.

Speech-as-prayer operates in the middle voice, to borrow an analogy from grammar.  As Eugene Peterson notes,
When I speak in the active voice, I initiate an action that goes someplace else: "I counsel my friend."  When I speak in the passive voice, I receive the action that another initiates: "I am counseled by my friend."  When I speak in the middle voice, I actively participate in the results of an action that another initiates: "I take counsel."  Most of our speech is divided between active and passive; either I act or I am acted upon.  But there are moments, and they are those in which we are most distinctively human, when such a contrast is not satisfactory:  two wills operate, neither to the exclusion of the other, neither canceling out the other, each respecting the other . . .

We neither manipulate God (active voice) nor are manipulated by God (passive voice).  We are involved in the action and participate in its results but do not control or define it (middle voice).  Prayer takes place in the middle voice.  (The Contemplative Pastor, pp. 103-104)
What Peterson says of the language of prayer is ideally how all our speech should operate: as a means of fostering relationships free of domination or submission.  Such speech is concerned with truth and not simply with power.  It must emerge from silence (however brief) such that the thread of the conversation or action that God has initiated can be joined.  It is a speaking-with-God that requires listening.  And listening takes time.

It is precisely this refusal to listen, the impatience of our speech, that is undermining the civility and truthfulness of discourse in our culture.  We use language to manipulate and divide rather than to con-verse, literally to be turned toward, live, or remain with another.  This was exemplified most recently in the controversy surrounding the willful misrepresentation of the words of Shirley Sherrod and subsequent reactions to it.  A life-giving speech about racial reconciliation and healing was distorted to promote the political advantage of those who benefit from racial discord, triggering a reactive response that was equally impatient with truth in its haste to preserve the appearance of political correctness.

This debasement of language obscures the lives, needs, and hopes of actual people.  It represents and reinforces a loss of connection with reality.  If we are to recover that connection, we must regain a capacity for silence, for listening, and for speaking in the middle voice.  Then our language might just serve the construction of a shared world of meaning, a speaking "with" rather than simply "to" or "about," much less "against."

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