Friday, December 15, 2006

silence, part 1

In every contemplative tradition, silence is central.

Throughout his writings, Merton’s thoughts on silence are fundamental to his perception of contemplation. In his earlier writings, these meditations on silence are concerned with the life of the monk, and were specifically concerned with prayer per se:

“The dialectic between silence and utterance. We have to keep silence for two reasons: for the sake of God and for the sake of speech. These two reasons are really one: because the only reasons for speaking is to confess our faith in God and declare his glory.” (January 8, 1950, ENTERING THE SILENCE, p. 394)
Merton puzzles over the “mystery of silence and speech” in light of the Gospel. He saw Pentecost as the “solution”, the Acts of the Apostles beginning with tongues of fire. Declaring the word of God was the only possible reason for speaking, and must be formed from silence and “bring the soul again to silence” (April 14, 1950, ENTERING THE SILENCE, p. 431)

Gradually, Merton expands his thoughts on silence to include the “noise” of the world: radios, televisions, racket, confusion, chatter, babble, soul-less and hasty repetitions of the rosary, and the need for houses of quiet, both inside and outside the monastery. And though it was true that we must know “how to bear with noise to have an interior life”, to resign oneself to being constantly overwhelmed with noise and activity was “an abuse”. (November 18, 1950, ENTERING THE SILENCE, p. 440)

From this point on, Merton’s writings on silence change. They reflect a different way of addressing silence: silence is not the absence of noise, but is a phenomenon in itself. He no longer treats silence as a monastic tool or technique; silence belongs to the very substance of sanctity.

Though 1953 and 1954, Merton made notes on silence which became part of his book “Thoughts in Solitude”. Many of these meditations were inspired by the Swiss philosopher, Max Picard

[Related website, review of Picard’s book: WORLD OF SILENCE . Quotes from Picard’s “World are Silence” are here.]

“Fundamentally, as Max Picard points out, it probably comes to this: living in a silence which so reconciles the contradictions within us that, although they remain within us, they cease to be a problem (of World of Silence, p. 66-67)
I’m hard pressed to find the quote most representative of Merton’s evolving thought on silence, but this one from “Thoughts in Solitude” reflects the integral nature of silence and contemplative awareness:

"... We put words between ourselves and things. Even God has become another conceptual unreality in a no-man's land of language that no longer serves as a means of communion with realty.

"The solitary life, being silent, clears away the smoke-screen of words that man has laid down between his mind and things. In solitude we remain face to face with the naked being of things. And yet we find that the nakedness of reality which we have feared, is neither a matter of terror nor for shame. It is clothed in the friendly communion of silence, and this silence is related to love. The world our words have attempted to classify, to control and even to despise (because they could not contain it) comes close to us, for silence teaches us to know reality by respecting it where words have defiled it. ...

"Words stand between silence and silence: between the silence of things and the silence of our own being. Between the silence of the world and the silence of God. When we have really met and known the world in silence, words do not separate us from the world nor from other men, nor from God, nor from ourselves because we no longer trust entirely in language to contain reality. (p. 92-93, THOUGHTS IN SOLITUDE)


  1. Marshall McLuhan was very consumed with the idea of the resonant interval or the space between. Originally the idea comes from the space needed between two sounds to make them meaningful. Without that space they are just noise. But the idea transfers or resonates with many forms of awareness. It is what makes metaphor more powerful than simile, because it leaves room for the listener or reader to make the connection rather than doing the work for him or her. Bringing two elements into proximity so they can comment on each other, but without making them comment is the key. It is like creating a critical mass in an atomic reactor. The closer the elements get the more they heat up.

    Merton is engaging with the resonant interval of creation.


  2. And that is why silence is so pregnant, right? why what is unsaid is so much louder than what is said?


2nd Sunday of Advent 2023

Photo by John P. Walsh F rom Alfred Delp S.J.,   Prison Writings , Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2004: “So this Sunday we must again fol...