The contemplative traditions assert that the language for expressing and exploring the spiritual quest is silence. As St John of the Cross expressed it, ‘Silence is God’s first language’.
Meditation does not create the silence – it is already there, within the person but meditation uncovers and reveals it.”
Silence is the language of the heart and is the deepest response to mystery. While meditation is a universal practice and comes in many forms, Christian meditation is ultimately a silent, wordless, imageless form of prayer.
Meditation does not create the silence – it is already there, within the person but meditation uncovers and reveals it. James Finley, who has devoted his life to teaching about Christian meditation, says that when we meditate ‘ we freely choose to offer the least resistance to a graced liberation from the tyranny of thought. As we do so we open ourselves to the mystery of knowing God in ways that utterly transcend what thought can grasp or contain.’ Meditation teaches us that silence is not so much the absence of external sound as the absence of internal noise, the absence of the persistent chatter of our own mind. But the silence of meditation is not about absence, but about receptivity to the Spirit which is always present. As the Greek Orthodox theologian, John Chryssavgis, wrote ‘Silence is never merely a cessation of words … rather it is the pause that holds together all the words both spoken and unspoken. Silence is the glue that connects our attitudes and actions. It is fullness not emptiness, it is not an absence but the awareness of a presence.’ Robert Frost’s two-line poem ‘The Secret Sits’ might be adapted to capture this poetically: ‘Our words dance around in a ring and suppose, While Silence sits in the middle and knows.’ Those who practise meditation find that it helps them to enter more deeply into the mystery of their being, to leave themselves open and vulnerable to unselfconscious engagement with that mystery, to a knowledge that is heart-felt rather than cognitive.
I always look forward on a Wednesday morning to reading Michael Harding and Laura Kennedy’s weekly articles in the Irish Times. Writing on January 9 this year, Kennedy advised her readers to “Take a moment. You are still alive. This, now, is the substance of every finite moment. Don’t spend every present moment living inside the one to come, or in one’s past.” While it may not have been her explicit intention, she captures the essence of what meditation is about. Writing two years earlier, in June 2017, Harding wrote about silence from the perspective of two men living on opposite sides of a lake. He had written an article some time before about standing by the lake near his cottage and looking wistfully across it. A reader from the far side of the lake wrote to say he often did likewise from the other side and Harding writes: “He conjured up an image of me in my garden, and him on his porch, with five miles of water between us, both of us standing in the same existential solitude.”
Harding goes on to note that in such solitude he can experience a call to a deeper self: ‘It is the presence of an other that opens when I abandon the hum of the world; when I abandon the cacophony of anxieties that stream from a thousand sources of crazy news. It is the presence of an other that rises when loved ones leave me alone for an hour or a day or forever. That’s what I find in summertime, in parts of the garden where even the beloved does not venture. A presence. In shaded places where I stand and gaze at the lake. At grey clouds on the mountaintop. At flag irises on the ditch. At horse tails growing high. A presence I discover when the house is empty and the screens are turned off. In those moments I can sense an other gazing back at me. As if there actually was someone over there across the lake, in his existential garden, living every moment of this solitude with me. And then I know I am on a holiday, or in a holy day, as the presence of an other beyond all perception watches me; a presence that invites me to some communion of surrender among the foxgloves, in which all my sorrows dissolve.
While Harding wrote about solitude, about silence, in prose, it is not prosaic but poetic. Heidegger once said that poetry is language in service of the unsayable and the purpose of the poet is to reveal the holy. I think Harding’s piece captures that very well. Writing from a faith perspective, we can say that in meditation we leave ourselves open to a graced encounter with the unspoken, silent presence of the Other, the source of all life. Meditation helps us to understand the meaning of silence and begin to apprehend our true-self.