“To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die…a time to keep silence and a time to speak…”
The book of Ecclesiastes is also called ‘the teacher,’ and it is attributed to King Solomon, the wise. It’s included in that part of the Bible known as the Wisdom Literature, which includes the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs.
Thomas Wolf said of Ecclesiastes, “[O]f all I have ever seen or learned, that book seems to me the noblest, the wisest, and the most powerful expression of man’s life upon this earth — and also the highest flower of poetry, eloquence, and truth. I am not given to dogmatic judgments in the matter of literary creation, but if I had to make one I could say that Ecclesiastes is the greatest single piece of writing I have ever known, and the wisdom expressed in it the most lasting and profound.”
As I read it, Ecclesiastes is especially about humility: ‘vanity of vanities, all is vanity,’ says the teacher. Sometimes that line is interpreted as ‘all is meaningless.’ But that’s within a larger theological context the bottom line of which says that only a connection to God is meaningful.
I take the line, ‘vanity of vanities, all is vanity’ to suggest the need for a gentle humility.
Silence feeds a gentle humility. Mother Teresa was one of those who had a gentle humility. We don’t get to vote on naming new saints, but she’s been nominated and stands as a reminder of Jesus’ teaching: ‘as you have done it to one of the least of these…you’ve done it to me.’
After her death several years ago we were surprised to learn of her deep spiritual struggle. She wrote about it, confiding to her confessor or mentor that she was filled with theological doubts, which we’ve talked about from time to time. But on the subject at hand – a time to keep silence – she said:
“God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence.”
Silence has a spiritual quality.
Silence is about listening, and listening is an active verb. It’s a mistake to think of listening as passive.
I’m reminded of another well-known Catholic priest, Henri Nouwen, whose final book, Sabbatical Journey, talks about his personal struggle ‘with anguish, loneliness and the need for acceptance.’
In that final book he ponders what he might do after his sabbatical and talks about his wish to break out of the traditional role of priest, and his fear of doing so.
In an earlier book, The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey, he said: “When we honestly ask ourselves which persons…mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
That line ‘the friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair’ reminds us of the story of Job who suffered greatly with one devastating loss after another. The story (which is actually a three-part poem) says that he sat down on the ground in utter despair and three of his friends came along and saw how great Job’s suffering was and they sat with him for seven days and seven nights and no one spoke a word.
In Hebrew the word for seven is shiva; the Jewish custom of sitting shiva has origin in the book of Genesis: ‘Joseph mourned his father’s death for seven days.’ Genesis 50: 1 – 14. To sit shiva is to be with one who is in deep grief – without trying to ‘give advice, solutions or cures,’ as Nouwen put it.
Again, in Nouwen’s words, “The friend who can be silent with us in a (time) of despair…who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
To ‘tolerate not knowing what to say, to tolerate not offering a cure, but to face the reality of powerlessness, the reality of suffering…’ requires a kind of humility…a kind of modesty, a respect for one’s limitations. It’s one of the virtues, threatened by its counterpart, pride. St. Augustine called it ‘the deadliest of the seven deadly sins.’
After Job and his friends sat for seven days – after sitting shiva – Job was first to speak; he cursed his life saying he wished he never was born.
One of his friends finally spoke up and said, “If one ventures a word with you will you be angry?”
The friend then tells Job that he should confess his sins or the misdeeds that caused God to deliver such punishment – after all, his friend was thinking and fearing, if this could happen to Job for no good reason, then it could happen to me!
His friend insisted that God was not only just, but merciful, which suggested that Job must have deserved even more punishment.
The others who had been sitting in silence with Job for seven days and nights each took a stab at it, making long-winded speeches that drove Job to distraction until he finally told them all to get away from him, that they are only making matters worse with all their insensitivity.
One of the interesting things about this poem is that they were sitting in silence together…shared silence.
It’s one thing to be silent by ourselves – to meditate, perhaps, or go for a walk alone, and so forth. Our time of silence alone helps us to get back to ourselves, to reflect on the day past, to consider the time ahead, helping us to be thoughtful and hopeful.
It’s another thing to share silence, as Job and his friends did.
Everyday we are faced with decisions about when to keep silence and when to speak, or to ‘speak up.’ Sometimes we’re afraid or anxious about silence, or uncomfortable with it, for a variety of reasons. But we’re also afraid of saying the wrong thing, and, like Job’s friends, making matters worse.
It’s easy enough to say ‘there’s a time to keep silence and a time to speak,’ but knowing when to do which requires a bit of wisdom, and a lifetime of practice.
There’s something about sharing silence that is healing. Sharing silence has something to do with that elusive thing we call spirituality. It helps us to feel connected to one another on a deeper level than the way language helps to connect us. Language does help to connect us, of course. But language has its limits.
Silence has something to do with revelation. Theologians and poets talk about God’s silence, and sometimes suggest that ‘God can only be found in silence.’
Silence requires discipline. Without that discipline we may blurt out something we’ll regret, like when you’re the passenger in the car and you say something to the driver that sounds critical. You know what I mean.
Someone said, ‘silence has become an endangered species.’
There’s something about silence that has the potential to heal and to reveal to us what we need to do…so we value it, and we treasure it.
A friend recently introduced me to a book by Gunilla Norris she titles, Sharing Silence — Meditation Practice and Mindful Living. She says, “The experience of silence is now so rare that we must guard it and treasure it…silence brings us back to basics, (back) to our senses, to our selves. It locates us. Without that return we can go so far away from our true natures that we end up, quite literally, beside ourselves. We live blindly and thoughtlessly. We endanger the delicate balance which sustains our lives, our communities, and our planet.”
Silence, she says, ‘helps to bring us back to ourselves.’
Silence require patience; and silence helps us to become more patient!
(Like the story about the woman who had to get a whisker from the lion to put in the ‘love potion’ so that her step-son would accept her; by finding the courage and patience needed to get that whisker, she learned what she must do with her step-son.)
It’s all about wisdom. Not knowledge, only. Not information. But wisdom. As a wise person said, “Silence speaks.”
The power to be intentionally silent at certain moments is the developed by exercise, like the muscles that are developed through physical exercise. It requires practice. Exercise…training…putting it into action.
Being silent in those certain moments is not passive. It appears passive. It looks for all the world like ‘doing nothing.’
Intentional silence is not passive. It takes self-control; it requires wisdom and insight and intuition. It can’t be taught, but it can be learned, and you learn it by experiencing it, again and again.
A child needs to be taught not to interrupt, but a child often learns more from that lesson than is in it. She learns not to interrupt – she learns to wait for her turn to talk.
It may result in having parallel conversations where each person takes a turn talking while the other doesn’t talk, but doesn’t really listen, either. She’s just waiting for her turn to talk, again.
Two three-year olds in a sandbox have that kind of conversation. One says, “We had a birthday party at my grandma’s house last night,” and the other says, “I got a new book,” and the first one says, “…and we had ice cream and made our own sundaes,” and the other says, “It’s about a big green monster, and my mommy was reading it to me.”
A child needs to learn not to interrupt, but it takes a degree of maturity to learn how to listen.
There are, of course, times to keep silence that don’t require wisdom, insight or intuition, such as being silent when the movie starts, including previews of coming attractions, or being silent when the prelude music begins, or listening while your spouse tells you about his/her day. Those are easy because they’re obvious and only requires doing what you’re told.
In one of the other wisdom-literature book, the book of Proverbs, it says, “Thoughtless words cut like a sword. But the tongue of the wise brings healing.”
Sometimes the healing happens by holding your tongue! As Henri Nouwen put it:
“…The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness…”
For everything there’s a season: There’s a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.
When Moses was told to speak up to the Pharaoh he told God to find someone else, explaining that he had a speech impediment. God said, “It’s time to speak truth to power.”
The stories of the great religious teachers, like Moses, Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammed, Lao Tze, include in each case a time when they spoke up…but also a time when each of them withdrew, when they found the need for some solitude, some silence, some alone time. So they went to the desert, or a mountain, or a cave, or a Bodhi tree, or, in the case of Lao Tze, they ‘left town.’
This summer, when I was told that my friend Jorge was dying, I went to him in the mountains of Naranjito, where he was spending his final days.
So I went to him, not knowing what I would find or what would be required of me. I knew it wasn’t something I could do by email or telephone.
We spent three days together, sitting a kind of shiva. We talked, some, but we spent a lot of time sharing the silence of suffering.
We wept together, but we also laughed together. And he asked me to break the silences by reciting poetry, which was one of the important ways we had connected in our early years together.
He was a brilliant musician, which was another way we shared time together over the years, so we sang together, or did our best to make some sounds that suggested singing.
The singing, and the poetry, and the conversations, were interspersed with long silences – a sacred time.
You can’t force silence to become sacred, but you can kill it with too many words and too little silence.
Emily Dickinson has a poem that says it simply:
Speech is one symptom of Affection
And Silence one –
The perfectest communication
Is heard of none –
Billy Collins has a poem he calls Silence:
There is the sudden silence of the crowd
above a player not moving on the field,
and the silence of the orchid.
The silence of the falling vase
before it strikes the ﬂoor,
the silence of the belt when it is not striking the child.
The stillness of the cup and the water in it,
the silence of the moon
and the quiet of the day far from the roar of the sun.
The silence when I hold you to my chest,
the silence of the window above us,
and the silence when you rise and turn away.
And there is the silence of this morning
which I have broken with my pen,
a silence that had piled up all night
like snow falling in the darkness of the house—
the silence before I wrote a word
and the poorer silence now.
And finally Pablo Neruda’s poem, Keeping Quiet
And now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth
let’s not speak in any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not complain about his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about,
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve,
and you keep quiet and I will go.