Monday, December 17, 2007

Reading Between the Lions: A Pedegogy of Silence

[Sermon for Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, 18 November, 2007]

To read the Book of Daniel is to enter a colourful maze of stories and visions built on the grandest of scales. Kings are raised up and fall down, gratuitously, or by their own folly. Daniel, the ultimate survivor, manages to finesse his way through four reigns, while attempting to teach the same unpalatable truth to each ruler in turn.

The book is full of allusions to earlier texts, and is itself a rich source of images and sayings that have come down to our own time: weighed and found wanting; handwriting on the wall; feet of clay. Shakespeare may have had Chapter 4 in mind when he wrote King Lear.

But there is also a sense of mischief in the Book of Daniel, an atmosphere of pawky humour. For one thing, there are all those instruments—the "horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble"—surely the religion of Babylon helped it to live up to its name as a noisy place! And today's story borders on the camp: it isn't difficult to reimagine it on BBC 2 as "Graham Norton in the Dragon's Den."

One might think, knowing what he did about Daniel, that Darius would have suspected a set-up before exercising the false mandate presented by Daniel's rivals, suggesting that Darius proclaim worship of himself. But this is a cautionary tale. Darius' hearing was selective, like most people's; and like most people in power, his vanity was easily seduced. At least he dispensed with the statue and the musical instruments.

The problem is that he also conveniently forgot that his predecessors had been silenced by similar self-inflation; that the much-esteemed Daniel also interprets dreams, and that he serves a God whose very name is silence.

Darius would not have known the prophecy in Second Isaiah—which may be a source used by the author of Daniel—that "Kings shall shut their mouths" before God's servant; that what "they have not heard they shall contemplate." (Is. 52:15) But Daniel knew it: if the monarch is too obtuse to learn from the past, then the closed mouths of the king of beasts must get the message across. Daniel has to teach Darius to read between the lions.

The subtext of many bible passages turns on similar disturbing imbalances between silence and speech, or between stillness and action. Yet contemporary interpreters often miss this aspect of biblical texts, because silence is intrinsic to them, too much of a commonplace to be mentioned. We may have a mental picture of Jacob wrestling with an angel, for example, but however else it may be interpreted, the story takes place in silence and is about silence.

In our culture we are assaulted by relentless noise and information overload. For us, awareness of silence deserves special mention, and may even induce anxiety; and in a university founded on dialectic, it all too easy to forget that many of the literary, religious and philosophical texts we study have silence as their goal as well as their primary criterion of interpretation.

Until about the end of the 13th century, not only was the world for the most part a very silent place, but silence was intentionally cultivated. "The History of Private Life" reminds us that pupils were taught to remain silent, for "silence was considered as important a part of education as the alphabet."* And as Mary Carruthers has shown, the conscious structuring of memory draws on the mysterious transfigurative powers of the silent mind, an educational strategy which became elevated to an art in the Christian West.

1274, the year that Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure died, may serve as a marker for the beginning of the end of silence in balance with its servant, dialectic. By 1274, the wildfire of dialectic had already been spreading for 200 years, and at the end of the thirteenth century it became unstoppable, scorching the earth of the soul, its clamour drowning out the pedagogy of silence, and aborting the fullness of humanity transfigured in silence. By trans-figuration I mean just what it sounds like: a semiotic mutation and reintegration that takes place in silence, that enhances what we have learned and seats it.

Modern science has only begun to understand what late antique and medieval thinkers knew about the role of silence in the way we learn. Their descriptions are necessarily paradoxical. Contemporary science approaches the problem through the study of sleep but even then the descriptive paradoxes do not go away.

For example, a recent article on sleep research in the Observer confirms that we must forget in order to remember. Conversely, contemporary psychology reminds us that we must remember in order to forget. The French verbs we have spent the afternoon memorizing will not be seated in our memory until we have slept on them; and hurtful memories cannot be let go until we take them out of the dark place where we have stuffed them and examine them thoroughly.

If we try to remember the lost word on the tip of the tongue we must forget not only what we are trying to remember but that we are trying to remember. We must trust that by forgetting there is a chance (not a guarantee) that the word will be returned to us. This cycle of remembering and forgetting, whatever form it takes, has been called the paradox of intention.

The same paradox is at work in single-pointed meditation. If we try to suppress our thoughts by effort we will only be plagued with more thoughts. But if we focus on a single point, the breath, a word, a visualization, thoughts will fall away without our realizing it. The process of trustful forgetting that leads to subtle transfiguration in the epistemological silence is what is religious people call "faith." Through our transfigured perception of the data now seated and integrated in memory, this epistemological silence will affect our thought and influence our behaviour.

It is quite possible that religion arises from our attempts to interpret this transfigurational process that is beyond our control, though not our intentionality. We have the choice of what to put into memory, and what we would like our memory to do in a general way; we have the choice to open to its transfigurational process more fully, or to flee it for fear of what it might show us about our selves, or what it might reveal of the change a new creation would require of us. To flee, to try to keep the processes of silence at bay in order to maintain our self-inflation, leads to scientific, religious and technological fundamentalism or any other -ism.

Loss of understanding of the essential role of silence in our lives and thought processes is one of the principal reasons contemporary religion is in such a mess. It is also one of the main causes of the false dichotomy between science and religion.

It is as true now as it was in the ancient world that your core silence—or lack of it—determines who you are and how you will behave. Whether you choose to educate your memory to allow silence to do its work of trans-figuring the academic and existential knowledge you acquire, or whether you avoid silence at all cost determines not only your approach to goodness, truth and beauty, but also how you will interact with the people around you.

All experience is interpretation, and if we wish to be able to open to what is new and to the other, if we wish to be free from the prison of our anxieties, then we must repeatedly access the silence where God touches us, where we are anointed, that is to say, en-Christed; where our interpretations may be re-ordered, and where the static construct of our identity, through a long and delicate process, may be re-created as a dynamic and unfolding truth. It is only through us that silence may be introduced into the world of noise to transfigure its sorrow into joy.

However else we interpret the life of Jesus and the teachings that issue from his life, we may see it as both paradigm and parable of what we might call the work of silence, both the effort involved in becoming silent, in training our memory with intention and willingness, and, perhaps, more important, the effort to open to the silence to work on us. The parable of the sower in our second reading for today is surrounded by silence, and the fertile ground is itself the receptivity that is silence. The first word of the parable is "listen", and its explication ends with "hears the word and understands it." The parable implies that what is put into the ground, the Word, our words, is just as important as the fertility of the ground on which it falls.

The lesson is reiterated in the parable of the tares that immediately follows. While we are often careless of what we put into our memories, it is nonetheless presumptuous for us to speak of a true or false self, to decide to cultivate the one and ruthlessly root out the other. One reason we should hesitate to bind our selves to such a procrustean bed is that our notions of self are illusory, constructs of interpretations, interpretations that are always prejudiced and reified.

Secondly, our unfolding truth requires all of what we are and is revealed only as we pay attention to something other than our selves. Most important, however, is the recognition that no human being holds the perspective to make such an absolute judgement; we need all of what we are as created beings. It is not for us to call evil even part of what God has called good; and it is through our wounds that we are healed. The early Christians were not looking for heaven; they were looking for a new creation.

Whether or not one is religious, the part of the mind that is not in self-conscious use can be trained to an ever-greater receptivity and openness to transfiguration. For the religious person this intention gradually resolves into a form of prayer without ceasing, a divine exchange that informs all of life and transfigures the world around it. "I sleep, but my heart wakes." (Song 5:2)

There is a price, of course: once you have embarked on this way there is no turning back, and when you reach the end you will find, like the man who buys the field that hides the treasure, that it has cost not less than everything. The new creation that ensues may be shocking, especially to the establishment: Archbishop Desmond Tutu is fond of saying that if governments knew how subversive contemplative prayer is that they would ban it, for the one who has been educated by silence has come to an autonomy that cannot be coerced.

In effect, banning silence is what the politicized late medieval church tried to do, and what career-oriented modern church hierarchies are still trying to do. Perhaps the prayer of that reformed 15th century church bureaucrat, Nicholas of Cusa, is apt here: "Free us from dialectics, O God...for garrulous logic (garrula logica) obstructs most sacred theology rather than leads to it."

Christian religious institutions today have so thoroughly lost the plot, because they have so thoroughly lost any understanding of silence; it is the reason that trendy liturgies are generally short-lived and unspeakably banal. Churches that use such liturgies no longer seek to transfigure the world through the gifts of silence; instead, they have themselves become the kingdom of noise.

We are at a dangerous crossroads, for once the hardwired epistemological balance between silence and dialectic has been compromised, it is difficult, very difficult, to restore; for noise by definition obliterates silence. These days we are pressured on all sides by the noise of twisted minds spinning in closed loops. The babble used to sell their crazy agendas is persuasive because most listeners have no experience of silence, and therefore have no intellectual or emotional autonomy through which to critique the insanities on offer. But this is exactly what politicians and corporations want, because if we stopped to balance our lives with a little transfigurative silence, we might become aware that we are rapidly becoming their slaves.

The various crises that we face today, the failure of political leadership, the environmental and social crises, the erosion of our ecosystems and our humanity, can all be laid on the doorstep of the imbalance between silence and speech. These crises cannot be addressed by clever talk, celebrity gurus or parliamentary committees. The balance can be restored only as the South African apartheid crisis was resolved, by the conversion of individual hearts reflecting in silence, learning to read between the lions:

"For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel:
In returning and rest you shall be saved;
in quietness and in trust shall be your strength...
Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you;
therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
blessed are all those who wait for him [in silence]."

* Georges Duby and Philippe Braunstein, “The Emergence of the Individual” in A History of Private Life, vol. II, Revelations of the Medieval World, ed. Georges Duby, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Belknap Press, 1988), 619.


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