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Silence: A Christian History by Diarmaid MacCulloch

December 13, 2014

SilenceIt is characteristic of my introvert spirituality that I would avow waiting on God in silence and preferring said to over-dramatically sung acts of worship. Perhaps it comes from my upbringing when, I was told, that ‘little boys should be seen and not heard’.

Diarmaid talks of a kind of silence which can be oppressive or liberating: I was conscious of being gay, and that proved to be a great blessing for a young historian. In the Britain of half a century ago, gay teenagers were keenly aware of what could not be said; of when to be silent and of how to convey messages in other ways. In much of the rest of the world, depressingly, those skills are still necessary. I was lucky to be able to face up to this challenge early on, was able to live life as I wished, and have enjoyed life much more las a result, but this life-experience has left me alert to the ambiguities and multiple meanings of texts, and to the ambiguities and multiple meanings in the behaviour of people around me. I have become attuned to listening to silence and to finding within it the keys to understand­ing many situations, far beyond anything to do with sexuality.

Judaism is quite a noisy religion, which makes you wonder how some forms of Christianity have embraced silence: the Gospel of John, gives Jesus the Christ the name ‘Word’, or rather calls him by the Greek word which means so much more than simply ‘word’. Logos is the whole act of speech, or the structured thought behind the speech, and from there its meanings spill outwards into conversation, narrative, musing, meaning, reason, report, rumour, even pretence. How does silence relate to the Christ who is Logos?… Paul presents his Corinthian friends with the subject of their common faith: the condemned Christ. The Christ of Paul’s faith is helpless in agony on the Cross, yet for Paul and for those who follow the Christian way, the crucified one is more powerful in his silent suf­fering than any power of this world or even of the next.

Judaism tends to see silence as negative: Repeatedly, the Tanakh links the silence and darkness of defeat in war to the ultimate human defeat in death and the darkness of the grave. Psalm 31 urges Yahweh to ‘let [the wicked] go dumbfounded to Sheol……Psalm 115 creates a close association between dumb idols and death and the grave; only a few verses after taunting the statues, it reminds the singer that the dead are no better than idols, for `[t]he dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any that go down into ilence’…. If dumb idols were bad, and dumb worshippers were bad because they did not sing divine praises, how much more culpable were dumb prophets? The whole point of a prophet was to be a mouthpiece of Yahweh… Peace and rest are associated with busy, regulated activity, especially liturgical activity…. His act of creation, described in two different ways in the Book of Genesis, is intimately linked with the idea of speech….Conversely, throughout the Tanakh the silence of God provokes a chorus of protest, expostulation and anguished supplication, express­ing not merely a sense that it is a just judgement, but on occasion that it is an inexplicable affliction of the innocent….. the same motif can be found in Mesopotamian texts long pre-dating those in the Tanakh, maybe as early as around 200 BCE. God’s silence was to be associated with the nation’s many disasters…’My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? . . . my God, I cry by day, but thou dost not answer; and by night, but find no rest.’ This is not a picture of what Christians would later call a hidden God, Deus absconditus…

Yet: So the Tanakh does contain traces of the positive use of silence in worship in the Temple. It would be only natural to find this as one aspect of the public reverence of God, since the same was true in everyday society. Subjects fell silent in the presence of their rulers, and even the powerful were attentive to someone recognized as having something worthwhile to say…

Many of the apocalyptic books are far more hospitable than the Tanakh itself to a positive notion of silence…. now the idea of silence in creation began to make its appearance in apocalyptic literature. Consider 2Esdras 6.39, written two centuries or so after Jubilees, and not improbably contemporary with Philo’s discussions of silence. It elaborates on the primeval darkness and formlessness (tohuwabohu) before creation to add a new element to the description: ‘the Spirit was hovering, and darkness and silence ’embraced everything.’ If one read the Priestly account of creation with this significant extension of its text in mind, then there was a pleasing correspondence in the act of creation: it began in formless silence as the Spirit hovered, but on the Sabbath, it ended in the restful silence of a world fully formed and structured, a silence which Psalm 19 might be said to describe, as the heavens told the glory of God without the aid of words or speech.

It’s a shame that the author spells out the divine name which, although popularised by the Jerusalem Bible, is ever pronounced by Jews.

Diarmaid is mistaken in asserting that ‘scriptures’ was only applied to Christian writings in the Second Century CE. 2 Peter 3:16 refers to Paul’s letters as ‘scripture’.

Jesus is silent when charged.

He also withdraws but this isn’t a reference to later monastic withdrawal but a simple move to avoid trouble.

The so-called ‘messianic secret’ in which Jesus enjoins silence on people is more about tensions between the Jerusalem Church and the Pauline churches and the polemic between them.

Paul silences prophets, not because silence is good in itself but in order to make Christians appear more respectable in a Roman world, where decorum is valued

Silence seems to have become part of Christianity via the Greek philosophers.

It’s interesting that the rosary may have originated from monks plaiting ropes while listening to readings and that the Muslim minaret may have originated in the pillar used by Simon the Stylite.

“….in 1600. De Sales emphasized that meditation­ should be considered to be a form of activity: so he called it ‘nothing other than [a process of] attentive thought, either reiterated or voluntarily entertained by the mind, in order to excite the will to salvific affections and resolutions’. By contrast, he spoke of contemplation as beyond activity: ‘nothing other than a loving, sim­ple and permanent attention of the mind to divine things.’ Repeatedly, mystics have discovered for themselves that same distinction ­which might also be termed a progression. It was a discovery which came in time for it to remain the common heritage of the Christiainities which divided in the fifth century — so far, never to reunite.”… The four rungs of Guigo’s ladder offered an ascent from reading meditation to prayer to contemplation….some readers of the Bible in their monasteries were taking up ye thoughts in ways which might reinforce the prac­lation, but might not. They pressed their engagement beyond its text, to the point that they allowed their imaginations to dwell on and wander through the imaginative results g, as the text itself faded away. The process was distinct acquire its own separate name, lectio spiritualis, which be translated as ‘spiritual perusal’, but really it was a otional perusal’: the exploration of an individual’s feelings before divinity. This was an unexpected result of the leaching Christian thought into the West….Peter of Celle …..praised the Carthusian Order what had started life in Psalm 115 as a religious insult: ‘mouths they, and speak not.’ This topsy-turvy use of a text that we have y encountered is a specimen of the medieval genius for twisting any text of the Bible to a new purpose, the uct of monks whose practice of lectio divina was at the centre of lives

Hardcore enthusiasts should take note that: Christians argued fiercely about the rights and wrongs of fleeing persecution, deceitfully denying their faith or standing firm to face torture and death.

Isaac, Bishop of Nineveh warns against hierarchies of progress in prayer: Intensity of stirrings in prayer is not an exalted part of pure prayer … it belongs only to the second or third rank … What is the most pre­cious and the principal characteristic in pure prayer is the brevity and smallness of any stirrings, and the fact that the mind simply gazes as though in wonder during this diminution of active prayer. From this, one of two things occurs to the mind in connection with that brief stir­ring which wells up in it; either it withdraws into silence, as a result of the overpowering might of the knowledge which the intellect has received in a particular verse; or it is held in delight at that point at which it was aiming during the prayer when it was stirred, and the heart cultivates it with an insatiable yearning of love. These are the principal characteristics of pure prayer….Valerian…. observed that ‘To speak and to remain silent, each is a perfection. The case of each consists in holding to the proper measure of words. Silence is great and speech is great, but the wise man sets a measure upon them both.’…St Jerome, who had insisted that it was just as arduous and as productive of spiritual growth to read a book as it was to starve in the desert or to sit atop a pillar.

For silent monasteries: The biggest change of all was the wholesale institution of the custom of oblation, that is, the offering of children to embark on a monastic career: and children are, by nature, cheerful foes of silence.

A frequent theme of this author is that the Western churches are limited in their understanding of history and miss other times of reform in the East: Each deserves to be given the name ‘Reformation’ which is generally reserved for the last of them, despite their three very different outcomes.

Of the Jesus prayer: Sufism predates the late thirteenth-century rise of hesychasm: its final acceptance into the Islamic mainstream had taken place two hundred years before, through the writings of the great mystical philosopher al-Ghazali. There is a notable similarity in the suspicion of the intellect expressed by Gregory

Palamas and such earlier masters as al-Ghazali, and in the fact that both movements emphasize the recitation of the divine name…. There is one significant difference between Sufis and Hesychasts. During the fourteenth century, the Hesychasts reined in their early emphasis on the physical aspects of silent meditation: by contrast, the Sufis had greatly developed it, particularly in the thirteenth-century Sufi Mevlevi Order, still famous for the dancing of its ‘whirling der­vishes’?’ Maybe, if there had been a more exuberant survival of imperial Byzantium, Hesychast Orthodoxy would also have developed its dervishes….. As in many things, the Ethiopian Church has over the centuries been exception to prove this general rule, though its practice probably owes more to its reverence for the Old Testament’s commendation dancing before the Lord than to any influence from Sufism.

Domincans: did not simply provide preaching, but also votive Masses, and individual confession. Parish clergy were able to perform all these functions, the friars were widely seen as the specialists.

Before Zen gardens?: Discalced Carmelites began encour­age their donors to create rural wildernesses for them, not to farm profit as Cistercians had done, but simply for contemplation. These were the first wild gardens or sacred theme parks to appear in history of ascetic silence.

Theology came to the fore in the Twelfth Century: once men dominated higher learning and embarked on the adventures of formal theology with the aid of a rediscovered corpus of the works of Aristotle, it was decided that learning was not for ladies. Perhaps that is why women were now so attracted to mysticism: it is a mode of spirituality independent formal intellectual training, that enables both mind and imagination to seek out the hiddenness of God, beyond doctrinal propositions the argumentative clashes of scholasticism. Many of the writing which conveyed mystical experience in this period were in various European vernaculars, consciously directed towards people whose command of Latin, the international language of Western culture, shaky or non-existent (as was likely to be the case with most women. Particularly in late medieval England, the anchoritic life became unmistakably a female-dominated profession. Perhaps this distance from male-dominated scholasticism explains why mystics, through their independent personal experiences, themes which were familiar in Orthodox spirituality, but which not been given nearly as much official encouragement by the church. The mystic could meet God without needing the mediation of the male Church hierarchy, and in ways which involved remarkable metaphorical or imaginative appropriations of physical with the divine.

The protestant reformation marked a return to pluralism and tended towards noise – preaching and hymn-singing, though the Quakers brought quietude and some went in for ‘standstill’ – an inner receiving of the sacrament rather than any physical reception. Meanwhile, the Counter Reformation encouraged the silence of the confessional and the silencing of books by censorship. It was suspicious of contemplation.

Irony: The great advantage of burning a human being to death it does not infringe ancient prohibitions on churchmen shedding blood.

For Jesuits under interrogation: had Christ not pretended to his disciples at Emmaus (Luke 24.28) that he was going to travel further with them? So ‘pious equivocation’ was not the same as lying.

Silent prayer was safer.

Some studies have proved that: that the silence of the confessional was much more signifi­cant in building up some sort of self-awareness in confused homosexual males, as they talked through their personal confusions to those whom they trusted, in the secure knowledge that what they said would not be repeated.

His description of the culture of Anglo-Catholicism, in which we both grew up, is painfully accurate.

I was shocked to hear of the immorality of my hero Paul Tillich but glad that he suggests that my nemesis Karl Barth deserves similar scrutiny.

I like the author’s cavalier dismissal of scripture, saying that ‘it got it wrong’. After all, if Martin Luther could dismiss ‘’an epistle of straw’, why can’t we, for example, when it comes to issues like slavery?

Overall, the church has covered up much. Chalcedon marginalised many in the ancient churches (who still exist to this day). The role of women as leaders has been airbrushed out as have the sexual proclivities of some male leaders. Clerical sex abuse was swept under the carpet.

Holocaust deniers, including senior churchmen denying the impact of scripture on anti-semitism, should heed: Rabbi Michael Lerner, brooding on the effect of Mel Gibson’s notorious film The Passion of the Christ (2004), pointed out that ‘if Christians have not confronted anti-Judaism as effectively as they have tackled other “isms”, then that is because doing so requires them to question the historical truth of their own scriptures.

I liked: Thomas Fudge’s dismissal of such misuse of Scripture is worth savouring: ‘A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.’

And I didn’t know that the origin of the title ‘arrow prayer’ is the javelin – to deter demons.

The author, rightly, does not dismiss the seekers who buy book from the ‘Mind, Body and Spirit’ section of bookshops and it’s a pity that the churches usually fail to offer, from their great resources, what these people desire and need. After all: Silence has now become the highest symbol of community action in secular liturgy. It unites those of diverse faiths and those of none, and it is chiefly manifested in the growth of the public remembrance of the dead in silence. This is something without much precedent in previous periods of recorded world history, but it is the mark of an irretrieva­bly pluralist society, in which any specific religious statement is bound to exclude someone. Readers will have experienced the small silences of meetings in which deceased friends or colleagues are recalled. They are miniature versions of the public communal silences which began in Canada with the commemoration of those dead on the Titanic in 1912. and then coalesced after 1919 in the remembrance of the unpre­cedented numbers who had died in the course of a war whose moral justification seemed in retrospect dubious to many.

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