Thursday, August 15, 2013

Yearning for Silence

Tim Parks, an Englishman living in Italy, is an interesting writer whose books about Italian culture I have enjoyed.  A recent piece of his in Aeon magazine, however, struck me as missing the mark a bit, although, being about his personal spiritual quest, Who am I to judge? (as someone else recently asked)

His topic is the yearning for silence, a topic of great importance to me. He says we fear silence and long for it at the same time because it involves the end of the self. Huh?

Well, Parks, having no religious experience with prayer and with only a 10-day Buddhist retreat under his belt, finds that a discussion of silence involves consciousness and selfhood, with which I agree; but it also involves, he says, "the desire to invest in the self and the desire for the end of the self." But it's more than Self!

His Vipassana experience taught him that "our excessive interest in our own wordy thoughts" can dissolve as language melts away during the meditative breathing but that meditative "techniques" return us to the noisy self, the busy mind, something most people understandably long to escape from. And he learned what most beginners know: that silence and stillness are related.

Parks does not seem aware that he is on the edge of the ancient mystical tradition of contemplative prayer, the practice of the presence of God in silence.  Whether or not this is a technique or not, it is lifelong pursuit (for monastics and laypeople alike) of the union of the self with God in which the self falls away; but this is not a loss but a fullness of experience.

The experience of God-with-us-now in the present moment is a loss of the self-conscious self but also a discovery, according to Thomas Merton, of the true self, the one known by God, who dwells within at the center of our being.

I hope Parks looks more deeply into silence and practices it regularly, that he reads Merton and Thomas Keating, John Main, and others like him in the Christian tradition. Their work is richer than the essentially secular and limited approach he has outlined in which the fear of death and the loss of the self becomes the result of silent meditation.

I want to tell him: What seems to be lost in the darkness of silence is the self, but that is only the first step on the mystical path that can't be clearly explained, even by great poets like John of the Cross or T. S. Eliot, except to say it involves finding the true self in the love of God. 

That may not make any sense to some readers, and I am not sure I understand it myself. That's why we call it a mystery, the kind without a solution or answer.

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