Saturday, August 06, 2011

Exploring Silence V

How long shall I be in the world of the voice and not of the world of the word? For everything that is seen is voice and is spoken with the voice, but in the invisible world there is no voice, for not even voice can utter its mystery. How long shall I be voice and not silence, when shall I become word in an awareness of hidden things; when shall I be raised up to silence, to something which neither voice nor word can bring?—John the Solitary 5th c. [1]

In a single paragraph, John the Solitary (also known as John of Apamea, 5th c.) has created a map of the spiritual life: the longing; the mind's way into silence; the transfigured knowledge beyond knowing, tasted and yearned for, that is given there; the problematic relationship between silence and speech; and, by implication, the differential between global and linear, inclusive and discriminating, the knowledge of and through unknowing and the merely conceptual (Cloud ch. 68; 68/18-21). [2] Unknowing is not anti-intellectual but coronal knowing, relinquishing the merely logical to a multidimensional, relational epistemology.[3] Silence for John and for similar authors is not an escape from the world but a way of being in the world.

The word silence in this context is a liminal term that evades definition,[4] one of a small group of words that includes behold. They are performative in that they give the linear, self-conscious mind a taste of what they signify, a brief respite from its restless analytical processing (Cloud, ch. 7, H. 16/5). Thus to speak the word silence breaks the silence, but also bestows a momentary engagement with what it signifies.[5] These threshold words operate in such a way that normal grammatical rules are of questionable use. [6] Behold, for example, does not ordinarily take an object ('the rest of the sentence is for those who do not behold'),[7] although it does take personal pronomial suffixes for emphasis as in the biblical 'behold me', usually misleadingly translated as 'here I am.'[8] We might say that these words belong to a missing 'third voice', which English/American and other grammars lack: a voice that conflates active and passive, that indicates an alert receptivity and profound engagement.

Until the early modern period the word silence signified a life of interior space. For example, 'God is a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference nowhere' is a saying that can be traced back to Empedocles.[9] Isaiah 33:17 says, 'Your eyes will see [Heb. behold] the king in his beauty; they will behold a land that stretches far away.[10] Hebrew and Greek authors are careful to distinguish bodily seeing from beholding or inward vision.

[1] Sebastian Brock, 'John the Solitary, On Prayer', Journal of Theological Studies, New Series, 30 (1979), 84-101, p. 87.

[2] The pre-Socratics and the Platonic and neo-Platonic traditions have much to say about the work of silence, as do the Hebrew scriptures, e.g., "For God alone my soul in silence waits." Ps. 62. The beholding of God is inclusive, e.g., The Cloud-author says that in 'goostlynes alle is one'. (ch. 37) The chapter title of ch. 68 reads: ' þat noȝwhere bodili is eueriwhere goostly . . .', and riffs on it in the next one (ch. 69): How þat a mans affeccion is merueylously chaunged in goostly felyng of þis nought, when it is noȝwere wrouȝt.'

[3] Cloud, ch. 14 last para. Bonaventure's description in the Itinerarium, especially chapters 6 and 7, gives a good description.

[4] Modern notions of silence tend to relate to the material world and to have negative connotations of suppression and restraint, e.g., to make silent, complete absence of sound (Compact Oxford).

[5] Behold seems to indicate grasping, but it is by ungrasping that one beholds. The paradoxical nature of these two words indicates that they are doorways into liminality.

[6] Ursula le Guin put it well: 'Rules change in the reaches.' A Wizard of Earthsea, New York: Bantam Spectra, 2004, p. 172.

[7] 'Jesus in the Balance,' p. 155.

[8] The shift in sense is from 'renew our I-Thou covenant' to a nuance of alienation and autonomy.

[9] Louth, op. cit.

[10] The first Hebrew word translated in the passage has nuances of a seer; the second what the seer sees from his beholding. In the NRSV the translator has chosen the weaker of the words to translate as 'behold'.


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