Tuesday, January 21, 2014


This is a short reflection on some of the words I've encountered and have been sitting with as I explore what silence means for me this year. I use "sitting with" because stating I'm "learning" or "understanding" could give the impression that I have a better grasp on any of this than I actually do. The following may not seem to scream "silence," but it's there.

In a series of talks with Fr. Thomas Keating, Fr. Richard Rohr speaks of how our ego or "false self" is what causes us to define ourselves in terms of what we dislike or what we are against. This "contrariness," as Julian of Norwich terms it, closes us off from experiencing deeper levels of faith and life, "because it’s always defining itself in terms of analysis, critique, judgment, labeling, or positioning, and this game of positioning is a mind game." Rohr says this mind game is "entirely an inner system that makes [us] feel important," but actually leads us into conflict with ourselves and others. It is necessary to let go of our false self in order to be who we truly are, but he explains that letting go of how we've learned to define ourselves can be incredibly distressing:
It’s all about letting go... It’s not about controlling or achieving or promoting or attaining…  it feels like dying in the first instance, because you've spent so much time living out of this mind and this ego that you think is you.... It will feel, in the first instance, like losing and like dying…these “little dyings” that have to become an art form and that you have to go through once, twice, several significant times to know, as the poet said, “What did I ever lose by dying?”
As I'm sitting with these words and others from Keating and Merton, what I'm experiencing does seem, at the risk of sounding a bit dramatic, "like losing and like dying."

In the midst of that, however, I think I might also be just beginning to catch infinitesimal glimpses that I am someone aside from all the ways I've previously defined myself - aside from what I do or don't do, what I like or dislike, how others approve of or disapprove of me - and apart from any labels or judgement that could be applied to me by myself or others.

I don't know how else to explain or define any of this. I know that it feels quite humbling and somewhat lonely.

And yet, inexplicably, also like becoming known.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

OneWord 2014: Silence

"We work out our salvation in silence and in hope. Silence is the strength of our interior life....Without this silence, our virtues are sound only, only an outward noise, a manifestation of nothing..." - Thomas Merton

What words do I use to explain why "silence" is my word for 2014? I've been trying for weeks to write this post, but I realize I must rely heavily on the wisdom of others to communicate why I chose Silence this year.

Merton and other contemplatives like Thomas Keating and Richard Rohr write of silence as the place within each of us where we discard our false-selves and the external props we often depend on to "prove" ourselves or our faith. By embracing and fully experiencing our inner silence, we learn to be who we truly are. I've been re-reading portions of Thomas Merton's No Man is an Island, and keep returning to this excerpt:
It is useless to try to make peace with ourselves by being pleased with everything we have done. In order to settle down in the quiet of our own being we must learn to be detached from the results of our own activity. We must withdraw ourselves, to some extent, from effects that are beyond our control and be content with the good will and the work that are the quiet expression of our inner life. We must be content to live without watching ourselves live, to work without expecting an immediate reward, to love without an instantaneous satisfaction, and to exist without any special recognition. 
We cannot experience this making "peace with ourselves" or "quiet expression of our inner life," without becoming well-acquainted with our interior silence.

I often feel a compulsion to react to what is going on around me and to fill silence with outward noise. Yet I've realized in the past weeks that I need to withdraw from the impulse to react, so I can explore the true motivations for my reactions. When I am filling space with my own noise, I am not making room for what God may be trying to speak to me in silence, nor what I may need to hear from others speaking out of the silence of their interior life.

Practicing silence doesn't mean always being silent, but it does mean honoring my own silence and the silence of others by not giving in to the discomfort that seeks to fill it without purpose. Practicing silence is one way in which I can learn to detach myself from a desire for others to hear and understand me, in order that I will hear myself and others more clearly and with understanding.

I'm not going to preemptively limit this experience by trying to create a detailed plan. I intend to explore more deeply the practice of contemplative prayer and I may attend some religious services where silence is practiced in community. I hope to go on a spiritual retreat that cultivates silence if I can, but I'm not making that a requirement. I am open to the possibility (read: probability) that my year with silence will be nothing like I'm envisioning right now.

Here is a final excerpt from Merton that I've been meditating on and which influenced me to choose Silence for 2014:
If we fill our lives with silence, then we live in hope, and Christ lives in us and gives our virtues much substance. Then, when the time comes, we confess Him openly before men, and our confession has much meaning because it is rooted in deep silence. It awakens the silence of Christ in the hearts of those who hear us, so that they themselves fall silent and begin to wonder and to listen. For they have begun to discover their true selves. If our life is poured out in useless words we will never hear anything in the depths of our hearts, where Christ lives and speaks in silence. 
I want to fill my life with silence, so that when I speak I am not pouring out useless words, but rather speaking hope to the silence in the hearts of those who hear.