We are made of word. And we are made of silence. We need both for life, for love. Silence is as important to knowing ourselves and others as words. As the intervals of silence between the notes of music permit music to breathe and take flight, so silence in the intimacy of love lets love unveil and fulfill itself, lets us connect directly to another, bare being to bare being. Words distinguish and differentiate, words separate; silence bridges and accepts, silence unifies.
We need both God’s words and silence. God’s words grant us one form of knowing; God’s silence permits yet another form, the intimate knowing of God’s Being, knowing and being known by our being. I have known God in silence with a nearness and power greater than words can contain or explain.
Thus does God’s say to us: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Stillness precedes knowing. Our noisy world interferes with our knowing ourselves, others and God. Sound hides as well as reveals, it cloaks the soul which dwells in silence, it shrouds the mystery in us which stands forth only in stillness. For being to know being as such, words must cease. Words may precede and guide knowing, and succeed and confirm knowing. But knowing, intimacy itself, is beyond words, beyond language.
Some of us are afraid of silence, for it prompts greater self-awareness. We can be so full of words, that God may have to literally strike us dumb to get our attention. God did so to Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, when he expressed doubt to the angel Gabriel concerning God’s gracious decision to give them a son, who would become John the Baptizer. God silenced Zechariah for the entire pregnancy of his formerly barren Elizabeth. When his speech finally returned at John’s birth, he praised God mightily, humbly. He likely never doubted God again.
Our hearts understand better in silence, and there is a silence in our hearts which words can neither dispel nor dissipate. It is the silence of God, of God’s being with us and our being with God. It is silence which invites love in, which furnishes love’s soil, as words furnish love’s nutrients. Silence lets love live and grow in us in its own way, unattended. As I have written: “If we could live without having a word for love, perhaps love could live with us undisturbed.”
Barbara Brown Taylor has something of real importance to say about the place of silence and sound in God’s worship:
“‘There is more silence in one person than can be used in a single human life,’ writes Max Picard, who laments a world drowning in a downpour of noise. When he looks around for some means of survival, he says that sometimes a cathedral looks to him like a great ark into which all creation is being gathered to save it from the flood of noise….
“Most people are so used to wading through the noise that they do not even notice how deep it has gotten. If someone were to tell them it was about to close over their heads they would not even be able to hear the warning, but a few of them have noticed what is happening. They are the ones walking up the steps of the cathedral, toward the promise of silence. The steps are littered with beepers, with telephones, with Walkman radios and portable CD players….
“Inside, it is another world. It is so quiet they can hear one another breathing. It is so quiet they can hear the candles burning, the flowers spilling their sweet scent. There is no question where all that silence is coming from. It is rolling toward them from the altar, the still center of the ark, where it is so quiet they can hear Someone Else think” (“When God Is Silent”, pp. 96-98).
What will it take for God to get your attention? Do you want to meet God; do you want God to still the noise within you? Then let the silence dwelling within you merge with the silence between you and God. Let words arise as they may between you, words of shared life. Yet do not let them turn you from the present Presence, from the One who is with you always, in whom and with whom you shall abide being to Being forever.
As God urges us through the words of the psalmist: “Be still and know that I am God.” Note what happens as we shorten this verse: “Be still and know.” … “Be still.” … “Be.”