Posted by Br George Van Grieken
on 5 December 2018
Have you ever been in a place where it is so quiet that the absence of sound begets a unique richness and palpable substance?
The anticipated "nothing" turns inside out, and a very much kind of "something" emerges. What comes to mind is my nighttime visit to a mountaintop near Sonoma, CA, where amateur astronomers quietly gather to share their passion under star-filled skies, waving about red night-vision-preserving flashlights and beckoning visitors stumbling around in the dark to come and squint through their telescopes to see this or that galaxy or star cluster millions of light-years away.
A similar sense of silence is found by others in the quiet company of loved ones, or in a walk in the woods perhaps with their dog, or in driving a car with the radio turned off and comfortably settled into a semi-automatic mode, or idly watching children play in a public park.
The "something" seems to consist of an inner settledness, an unanticipated resonance with the disposition of redwood trees and evening high-Sierra lakes. Each instance carries a hint of eternity and of grace; this is a "something" that strikes us as timeless and good and simply for us. It's the kind of experience that allows the word "blessed" to make sense.
"A human being is dust called to glory. The call directed to us is to raise our soul's eyes to glimpse the other side; then, to realize that, in Christ, a passage exists. The ladder of humility, laid flat, carries across. To own that I am dust is an act of daring. By that admission, I make peace with my poverty. I resolve to dwell within it. I am taught to let glory, by grace, lay claim to my being even now, to make it resonant with music of eternity. I learn to look towards eternity." (Varden, Eric. Shattering of Loneliness: On Christian Remembrance, Bloomsury, 2018)
Such sentiments may be easier to reach towards, or even touch, in a monastery or on top of a mountain late at night than in an airport, a shopping mall, or a busy family or school community. Yet the fact that it is possible is itself an invitation to do so. In that sense, and probably for that reason, Advent speaks of the reaching, and Christmas proclaims the invitation.
St. John Baptist de La Salle knew the value of example, the influence of what is experienced, and the learning potential of what is observed: "Do you wish your disciples to do what is right? Do it yourself. You will persuade them much more readily through your example of wise and prudent behavior than through all the words you could speak to them. Do you want them to keep silence? Keep it yourself." (Med 33.2)
The deep-down silence that is the condition for being open to God's presence in our lives is also the substance of how God "teaches" us. "We learn to speak to God only by listening to him; for to know how to speak to God and to converse with him can only come from God." (Med 64.2) Does this mean that we should hide in a cave in order to find God? We could, and people do, but thankfully God is more egalitarian than that. Think of the parable of the prodigal son, or the shepherd and his one lost sheep. If anything, God seems to be more readily found by way of forgiveness and mercy, through the cracks of life, than through any direct, stable, predictable, and definitive path.
Such cracks appear to be much more prevalent in contemporary society, contributing to the age of the "Nones," and yet today's society leaves people bereft of ways to fill them. David Brooks writes, "Sometimes I look at the rising suicide and depression rates, the rising fragility and distrust, and I think it all flows from the fact that we've made our culture a spiritual void. When you privatize morality and denude the public square of spiritual content, you've robbed people of the community resources they need to process moral pain together."3 So while Santa Claus and Black Friday are hugely successful, their benefits fall through the cracks, as it were, and the substance of things hoped for remains as hidden and ignored by most people as are the stars above. We have lost virtually all of our night vision, and even the tiny clusters of light seem out of reach.
What to do? Wave about red night-vision-preserving flashlights of mercy to help show the way of forgiveness, and beckon visitors stumbling around in the dark to come and squint at what we have been able to see, however far away and indistinct. Because at some point they will step back, take in the whole of it, and be touched by a tiny, silent whisper of presence and love4 that transforms absence into presence, nothing into something, and Christmas into Christ. And then we can truly say with Tiny Tim, "God bless us, every one!"