An Essay By Ben // 9/1/2002

Dear Homeschooling Friends,

Ah, the thoughts and sensations I would like to convey to you and to myself through words both glancing and sound! How I store them up from one day to the next in half formed sentences, each trembling for completion – each waiting to be sown in some sunlit or snowy field of real things and budding life....

I like silence. I like walking at night when there is no one driving on our streets. I like walking through a cemetery. I like writing late at night when the house is fast asleep. When I lived in a Benedictine monastery for several days I felt most sorry to leave the silence they shared with me. When I listen to music I listen for silence – and it is the silence in the music that gives the voice meaning. Call me morbid or absurd, but I also intuit that there is occasionally something silent in the plucking string of a mandolin, in the voice of a person, or in the sound of the wind. This silence “appears” like a low and constant note ringing out before and above the noise and – more often – over the quiet that we seek. And I won’t call it anything else but silence. Calm, tranquil, quiet, still, serene, hushed – these don’t describe accurately the experience that the word “silent” begins to define.

I actually thought this way first while sitting on a bench in a cemetery. It was a few weeks ago when the 100 degree weather was just beginning to let up. There was a slight breeze in the air, and I sat looking at a tombstone across the path from me. Her name was Florence, and she lived 17 years. Her parents and brother all lived full lives; they were buried around her. I don’t know a thing about Florence, but I imagined her life. I think it was bright and sweet... and complete. What a pretty name. She must have led a pretty life.

And this is how I came to think of this silence. It is the silence of the dead whose voices, no matter how once-heard and still-remembered, now lie mute to our ears. In this way the silence is quite tragic, and it could be quite despairing. Out of the silence of death this silence also echoes the cry of a living person in complete anguish. It echoes the words of David in Psalm 68: “And I looked for one that would grieve together with me, but there was none: and for one that would comfort me, and I found none.” What profound silence these words release upon our restless soul. The statement is both true and untrue for us. In the New Testament it applies uniquely to Christ as He carries the cross silently and silently watches the apostles abandon and betray Him. And, ironically, for those who hope to find comfort in Christ, the reply is, “take up your cross and follow me.” So, yes, the silence that I speak of is the silence of death and the anguish caused by fragility and loneliness. It is the silence of long-suffering men and women. It is the silence of people who recognize that the Christian God would have us nailed to a cross away from the living and speaking and close to those almost dead.

Yet, if we hope in hope we must also acknowledge that in anguish and death we are close – perhaps closer – to that for which we hope. To carry a cross is to walk behind the Christ. Last semester at school we read an essay that said just this. Many theologians conceive the ultimate conversion as that moment of silence when in total, wordless anguish – spiritually almost dead – the struggling soul turns with desire toward Christ and the suffering He promises. The essay, “The Metaphysics of Love” by Dr. Wilhelmsen, ascribes this kind of conversion mostly to the Protestant religion. I disagree with this. The sensation appears in David’s Psalms long before Christianity and is felt by all humanity. In as much as we all must die we must… simply must experience this silence. And in this silence we may listen to the soft, whispering voice of hope.

This is not the complete explanation of “my” silence, however. (In fact, I’m not sure if this is even a part of this silence.) But first there has to be a flip-side. King David does not end Psalm 68 in tormented hope that God will save him. The New Testament does not end with the crucifixion. Near the conclusion of the Psalm, David writes, “let the heavens and earth praise him; the sea, and every thing that creepeth therein.” I imagine this Psalm performed by some Shakespearean actor whose voice would fall to the lowest trembling groan only to rise in the end to one breath-taking cry of exultation and freedom. For here it is: the Ecstatic, the Comic – the loving and resilient vitality. The author of “The Metaphysics of Love” attributes a conversion caused by overwhelming love to the Catholic religion because of the richness of the Sacraments and the words of Catholic Saints whose hearts seem torn by joy. Yet here again I disagree with the essay – for the same reasons as before.

We all share it. Moments when for some reason – or for no reason at all – we become suddenly aware that we have a true companion, someone to grieve with us. Petting a dog or a guinea pig, eating a salad in an outdoor restaurant by yourself, taking marriage vows, yelling at someone in your family, praying in bed, shopping in K-Mart, eating Grapefruit with or without sugar, chewing tobacco, reading a book, contemplating your wrongs, writing, playing music with someone, remembering a past event, meeting someone you want to get to know better, working – all these moments can suddenly turn crystal clear and fill us with the knowledge that we are loved and can return love. It is almost as if the day pauses for one split second and we are allowed to examine everything as it is. I would say such a moment is also profoundly silent. And it may change the direction of our desires. The “revelation” is a gift just as the true anguish is a gift, yet we can always become better and more open receivers. I imagine and hope that Florence had these moments. Maybe she even had all the tragic and ecstatic moments of an 80-year-old concentrated into her 17 years of life.

David’s Psalm 68 is really neither a Tragedy nor a Comedy. Because it has both the silence of anguish and the silence of joy in it, I would call it a Tragicomedy. And now I am creeping closer to the silence I began by speaking about. For this kind of silence somehow is and is not a combination of tragic silence and ecstatic silence. It has both, but not one after the other. I think it somehow has both at the very same moment. And for this reason this silence need not be emotional at all. Both parts of life exist; it nods its head to both and lives on. Maybe the ecstatic counteracts the tragic so we are dulled and feel neither one. But more likely I feel there is a physical and spiritual wisdom planted in the soil of our beings somewhere that knows the death waiting in our life, knows the second we were born to, senses a path made by and for us in the passing days… and accepts all without thinking about the need to trust or conform. Nothing changes it because it forever has in mind all the joy placed in pain and all the pain placed in joy. It is forever calm and childlike. And it is deeply religious.

The pregnant character in Faulkner’s “Light in August” (I can’t remember her name right now) has this mysterious silence around her. She is cast out from home yet she feels the strong joy of having a child growing in her. And she is silent and calm throughout every difficulty in the book as she searches for her husband. She is focusing on the life that is growing, allowing her instincts to guide her and the mystery to enfold her. Or Myshkin – from Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot” – who lives most of his life in idiocy, unable to speak or be understood: he becomes perhaps one of the most beautiful and mysterious characters I have ever encountered, if only because of the wisdom of his muteness.

It’s not only in silence that this silence appears, as I’ve already said. I am usually surprised and always pleased when I hear it in someone’s voice. One hears it more often in the sounds of rain, wind, waves, and birds. Music – because it is so human – speaks the language of this silence more often than our words do as well. Sometimes all we have to do is tune our ears to the silence. It’s a silence that no one makes a big deal about. It’s pretty much categorized as the normal, unaffected part of life.... And yet it is also special; it is something we must be still enough and fragile enough to hear.


This is my second attempt at posting these thoughts on to apricotpie. Why? Because my thoughts are changing. Because it’s so hard to know how to (or whether to) write about such a thing. And I’m not sure what I think of this attempt yet!

Enjoy apricotpie!



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