Tuesday, December 19, 2006

silence, part 2 (or jazz as silence)

(photo of trumpeter, Clark Terry - by Ron Hudson)
In my explorations of Merton’s understanding of “Silence”, I have come upon a couple of quotes to share here. My sense is that Merton’s Silence is more related to solitude and listening, than to the absence of sound, and is, perhaps, rooted in the “prayer of the heart” of the Desert Fathers (and the Zen language of “Emptiness”).

Silence is not, not talking; silence is communication

In 1956 Merton had been a monk at Gethsemani for 15 years. Though he was still committed to his life as a monk, he was no longer infatuated with the monastic life. The honeymoon was over; he could see the problems and illusions.

During these years at Gethsemani the “Rule of Silence” was in effect (it has since been relaxed during certain hours). The monks lived and worked in close proximity to each other, and there was little privacy or time for solitude. In a strange way, the Rule of Silence served at times to make the lack of privacy more extreme.

In his journal he writes:

“What a disaster to build the contemplative life on the negation of communication. That is what, in fact, our silence often is – because we are obscuring it without really wanting it (yet needing it nonetheless) and without understanding what it is all about. That is why there is so much noise in a Trappist monastery. The infernal clatter and hullabaloo, the continual roar of machinery, the crash of objects falling from the hands of distraught contemplatives – all this protests that we hate silence with all our power because, with our wrong motives for seeking it, it is ruining our lives. Yet the fact remains that silence is our life – but a silence which is communication and better communication than words! If only someone could tell us how to find it!

The worse part of all is that we think we know.

What we have found is our own noise.

No, that is not true. The Paradox is that in spite of all, we have found God and that is probably the trouble. Such a discovery is altogether too much and we beat a hasty retreat into any kind of protection.
(A SEARCH FOR SOLITUDE, August 19, 1956, p. 71)

Jazz as Silence

In early 1968 Merton was in Louisville taking care of some legal work related to his writings. He stayed for dinner with some friends, and later they went to a new jazz place that had opened in an old warehouse building on Washington Street:

“…Clark Terry, a trumpeter who was with Ellington, is there for four days. It was very satisfying. The only problem – Tommie had invited a lot of people who were not really interested in jazz and who sat around garrulously talking when I wanted to listen. One man kept asking me to *justify* it, explain what could possibly be good about it, instead of listening to it. Still, it was good. The players were stacked up on a high stage in the middle of everyone but facing a wall, practically. It is a long high narrow cellar. Power and seriousness of the jazz. As if they were playing for their own sake and for the sound’s sake and had no relationship to the people around them. And yet for the most part everyone seemed to like it. Without understanding that here was one place in Louisville where something was definitely being done and said. Ron Seitz came with Sally, and Pat Huntington was with me as we formed an enclave of appreciation – maybe. Anyway, that was one place where I felt at home, if only I weren’t in a crowd of uninvolved people. It would have been better at a table, two or three, with nothing to say.”
(THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN, February 10, 1968, p.54)

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