Silence

Much of Eckhart’s rhetoric is beyond me and bears no relation to anything I have experienced or can imagine, but he has a couple of points that seem to me to be of supreme importance. The foremost of these is the birth of Christ in the soul. The purpose of life is to allow God to be God in us. At present prayer for me has become a clearing away of all the stuff, ideas, preoccupations, fears, desires, emotions, etc. that impose themselves between my attention and God. It is a seeking to arrive at an emptiness and silence and hold myself there in the (believed in but) unseen and unfelt presence of God. It is not always possible to achieve this silence but when it is there is an intangible sense of presence. So it was very interesting when I came across a paper on Prayer of the Heart by a Carthusian the other day.( la prière du cœur) He had some very sound things to say about asceticism, but it is what he had to say about silence that particularly struck me, especially since I have been so influenced by Buddhist meditation for so long.

He makes the point that there are many types of silence and that not all are good. The first temptation, he says, is de faire du silence un agir, to make a performance, a ‘something to be done, something to be achieved’ of the silence. With mind and feelings at rest one thinks that one has arrived at a true silence de l’être. In fact, the silence is the result of willpower, a subtle and, he says, pernicious action because, instead of being open to God we are, in fact, in a self-supported state. In the case of someone with a strong will this can be a major obstacle to their being open to the prompting of the Spirit. While the silence may be profound it is inward-looking and self-maintained. Allied to this is the temptation to make silence itself the goal, to think that the raison d’être of the contemplative life, of prayer, is silence. In so doing one comes to a stop at a material, a natural state of being. One does not go on to the encounter with God, with the Son, with the Spirit. It is this state of silence that matters, he thinks, rather than the  loving relationship with God. This is not prayer but the contemplation of oneself.

Analogous to this is the temptation of make of silence a reality in itself. Silence alone matters. From the moment the noises of the senses, the mind and imagination cease we begin to experience a profound state of joy and peace. That becomes all that matters. We look for nothing more. Anything that intrudes into this silence, even if it comes from God, is regarded as an obstacle and rejected.

In spite of all this silence is extremely important and cannot be valued too highly. But if one wants to enter the authentic silence one has to renounce silence. This is not to say that one avoids it, or refuses to seek it, but that one does not make of it the goal of ones striving. One often thinks that silence is simply the result of a state of peace in the mental and emotional faculties. This is partly it but it is also necessary that there be silence in the depths where heart and will are united. Rather than the will being self-centred it becomes open to God, pure availability, attentiveness and welcome. He concludes – Dieu seul suffit : tout le reste est néant. This is when, as Eckhart puts it, Christ is born in the soul.

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