Sunday, May 20, 2012

Word and Silence

As we draw near to World Communications Day 2012, I would like to share with you some reflections concerning an aspect of the human process of communication which, despite its importance, is often overlooked and which, at the present time, it would seem especially necessary to recall. It concerns the relationship between silence and word: two aspects of communication which need to be kept in balance, to alternate and to be integrated with one another if authentic dialogue and deep closeness between people are to be achieved. When word and silence become mutually exclusive, communication breaks down, either because it gives rise to confusion or because, on the contrary, it creates an atmosphere of coldness; when they complement one another, however, communication acquires value and meaning.

Message for World Communications Day, May 20, 2012

Reflection – Well, as suggested by commenter Fr. John Flynn, I am going to spend the next several posts discussing this excellent address of the Pope’s for World Communication Day, which is today, in fact.
It is a few years now that I have, by God’s grace and my superior’s permission, been able to spend at least some of God’s time allotted to me working as a writer. I am four books (two published, one coming out soon, one still looking for a publisher), numerous articles, and over 300 blog posts into this little mini-career within my larger and far more important priestly and Madonna House vocation.

So communication is something rather dear to my heart. ‘Words’ matter to me, intensely. Those who know me well know that few things pain me more than when communications break down, when words go awry and wrong messages get communicated.

The connection the Pope makes here of ‘word’ and ‘silence’ is a key one, well worth pondering, and we are going to ponder it together on this blog over these next days. In our own community’s history, Catherine Doherty our foundress presented to us in the 1960s the Russian practice of poustinia. The word means desert; the practice means (in our MH translation of it) taking 24 hours of silence and solitude, prayer and fasting. Only the Bible to read, in a plain sparsely furnished room or cabin. You and God and nothing else, no rules, no horarium—just silence.

In MH we have experienced in the 40+ years that poustinia has been part of our life precisely what the Pope is talking about here. Silence and word complement each other; they are necessary for each other. He will talk about all this at some depth and beauty in the days ahead, and I don’t want to be redundant.
Instead I will offer, below the ‘jump’, a sneak preview of book number four (the one that doesn’t have a publisher yet… say a wee prayer that it will find one, OK?). The book is about technology and its effects on our life and our humanity, and this is from the chapter “Becoming a Person”, which is about, well, silence and our need for it. It’s also nice to find out that the Pope and I are on the same page about something. Anyhow, here it is:
We need silence. Silence is that dark hidden place...
 the ‘womb’ of our humanity, the place where all the formative elements of our humanity are knit together into a whole. It is the place where we become a person.

We live in a world of noise. This is not a new situation, exactly, even if it has grown somewhat louder in recent decades. There is always input, stimulus, information and exhortation coming at us from multiple directions. And this input is necessary to our formation as human beings. We are not isolated monads.
But all this information needs to be incorporated, integrated, processed, digested. Otherwise, it lies fallow, remaining at the level of mere random stimuli striking our sensory nerves. It is in silence that we do this process of taking all the world gives us and making it our own, fitting it, sorting it, analyzing it, rejecting it, perhaps, but at any rate allowing that information to become part of our emerging person…

People who come to spend time at MH often remark at what a bunch of strong individuals the members of the community are. The only cookie cutters in use at MH are used (actually) to cut cookies. We are indeed a wild bunch of random oddballs, hugely different from one another in temperament, interests, opinions, talent and lack thereof. Deeply united in Catholic faith and an essential vision of life, we are otherwise really a bunch of flaming individualists.

I would hold that it is the very silence and austerity of our community environment that produces this strength of character and individual identity among us. There is input in all of our lives. MH is not a Carthusian monastery living in grand silence most of the day. We have our noise, too. But the conscious choice towards silence means that we can absorb the noise of life, the words filling our common space, the clatter and clash of the world as it beats in on us, and integrate it into our own personal being.

Silence is emptiness of sorts, by definition. It is absence: of noise, of words. There is a certain poverty that is entailed here. If words/noise/input are ‘wealth’ or at least fullness, then in silence we enter a sort of personal poverty, an empty space, a place which is not being filled from outside. And from this emptiness, this poverty, out of this ‘desert’ emerges… well, me.

Or, you. Or, whoever.  What do I really think? What am I really feeling? What is going on in the real me, under all the barrage of noise and words and impressions and sensory stimuli of my day? Only in silence can the real Fr. Denis Lemieux emerge from the wreckage, so to speak, of the daily noise tsunami.

My own experience in poustinia is just that: when I go into poustinia, generally the first few hours are spent with all the words and noise and input of the previous week raging and rattling and echoing within me and finally sputtering out into quiet… and out of that quiet, what is really happening within my heart and soul begins to take shape. I begin to shape a word that is my own true word out of the silence I find there. Necessity is the mother of invention; poverty and emptiness are the mother of authenticity, personal honesty, integrity.