Whenever I think of silence, I mean real silence, I think about going into a cave in Northern Florida. The absence of any noise is deafening. All humans relate to the reality before them through the five senses which feed the brain and direct the choices we make in the next moment or two. In this cave, my five senses seemed to fail me (although they just did what they always do–feed information about my environment to the brain). The problem was the brain was confused, having no signal of hearing nor of sight. This is real silence and this is real darkness. I panicked and experienced claustrophobia.
As soon as the lights went on again and I regained control of my external environment I was much better. This is an actual experience of silence that informs the way I think about silence and solitude in seeking God in my daily life. Nearly 100% of the opportunities I have to contemplate are with the sounds of everyday living are with this background noise. I have tinnitus and this slight ringing in the ears is always there. Even going within me to perform Lectio Divina, these background sounds from the physical and mental universes are there. I ignore them. As I move from my meditations toward contemplation, I embrace the silence in the sounds and it gradually fades away. It is when I accept what is real that I lose myself among the ideas that flood through my consciousness from the Holy Spirit.
Last week, I thought of how St. Benedict left the security and safety of his world to enter a place that is not unlike the cave I explored in Northern Florida. This silence in the midst of the sounds of everyday life is like a Lay Cistercian practicing charisms and practices of seeking God wherever and whenever he or she is. Silence or solitude is not an end in itself but only gives me a better way to focus on listening with the “ear if the heart” as St. Benedict prescribes to his monks in the Prologue to his Rule.
THREE TYPES OF SILENCE
THE SILENCE OF NATURE — This first type of silence is one that is based on nature, or in my terminology, the physical universe. Any living thing that interacts with its surrounding environment at each moment uses its probes or sensors to achieve its purpose in life. Silence in this universe is the lack of physical sound. All plants and animals (including humans) are subject to the laws of nature. But, it that all there is?
THE SILENCE OF THE MIND– The second type of silence corresponds with my notion of the mental universe. Only humans are a part of this universe because they are the only ones with the ability to reason and to make choices about what they reasoned. It is in this universe that we are aware of a silence that opens the door to our inner selves. Some of us choose to use this platform of human sensors, plus reason, to move to a deeper level of reality–Faith. It is this silence in which Faith is nourished and flourishes. The purpose of human existence is to know, love, and serve God in this life and to be happy with God in the next. The silence of the mind is what we must begin to tame before we can enter the last, but the most profound area of silence, that of the heart. The early Fathers of the Desert such as Anthony and later St. Benedict and St. Bernard of Clairvaux knew of the importance of silencing the mind and so they sought out solitude as a way of isolating and focusing their minds on Christ alone. That they ended up in caves and in the desert was no surprise. Have you ever been to any type of dessert? All you can hear is your own thoughts and the beating of your own heart. We need to clean the mind of anything that would deny us entrance to the heart. Chapter 4 of St. Benedict’s Rule has the good works needed to cleans the mind and heart to prepare to receive Christ.”To deny oneself in order to follow Christ.” When we have humbled ourselves to be able to see with the “ear of the hear” we grow ever deeper into the Mystery of Faith., gradually being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit.
THE SILENCE OF THE HEART (The Silence of God) I often think of the silence of the heart as contemplation, while the silence of the mind is meditation (using the four levels of Lectio Divina- lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio). I kept thinking of why these early holy men and women gravitated to solitude in the desert and eventually in monasteries. This is the silence of the kingdom of heaven and it begins for each of us with Baptism and acceptance by God as adopted sons and daughters, but ends in Forever.
My growth from self to God uses this silence and solitude to enable me to sit in stillness on a park bench in the midst of winter and wait patiently for God (my definition of contemplation). I strive to listen with the “ear of the heart.” It is this striving for my heart to be present to the Real Presence that begins my contemplation. It is the silence of my heart longing just to be with Christ that I seek. This profound encounter in contemplation is where I hope transformation takes place. Being in the presence of the heart of Christ happens when I abandon myself to whatever God says. Just let go and wait.