Three kinds of silence.

Reading of Three kinds of silence, Part 1.

I described in an earlier post that I liked to read fantasy novels as a way of relaxing during the holidays, and that “The Name of the Wind”, by Patrick Rothfuss, contained a prologue which is one of the most beautiful and poignant pieces of prose I had ever read in my life. He titles his prologue ” A Silence of Three Parts”. He begins his description:

The most obvious part was a hollow, echoing quiet, made by things that were lacking. If there had been a wind it would have sighed through the trees, set the inn’s sign creaking on its hooks, and brushed the silence down the road like trailing autumn leaves.

The Name of the Wind. Patrick Rothfuss

He has also written a beautiful, poignant book about one of the characters we meet in “The Name of the Wind”, called “The Slow Regard of Silent Things”.

Silence is an issue. Ignatius also writes in the power of three in the Spiritual Exercises: the first, second and third sin; the three powers of the soul, three classes of men; three kinds of humility; three times of making a choice; three methods of prayer, three principle reasons why we suffer from desolation. And in a previous post I wrote about speaking out, the opposite of silence. Hence the convergence of these three ideas here. Further, I would describe three aspects to the three kinds of silence, a sort of fractal pattern.

The first kind of silence I would describe as a literal, physical silence, something of which Rothfuss is describing above. There is a noticeable lack of it in our fast paced world. It may present as the absence of ambient noise that we selectively do not hear, it may be in holding our tongue in non verbal disapproval, or maybe even shock, at the behaviour, actions or speech of another, or it may be keeping quiet to allow another, or others, to speak in conversation or in a group setting. One thing I have noticed more and more since becoming a spiritual director is that when we are in conversation with each other, we often only listen for the pause in the conversation so that we know when we can voice our own opinion; we are not really listening to what the other person is saying. I see this a lot in the classroom: a child puts their hand up to ask a question mid explanation, and I finish my explanation before they are given the opportunity to speak, only to find that I have just explained the answer to their question in the intervening period. So intent were they in listening for the pause, that they missed the answer to the question they had put their hand up to ask. Or, during meetings sometimes, someone is speaking and making a point, and someone else, or more than one someone else, starts talking over them and the chair frequently has to step in: and of course, not just meetings, in any group conversation I notice this happening. I notice myself doing it too, and when I do, I apologise for interrupting and I attempt to correct my behaviour. So here, I want to issue you with a challenge: sit back a bit this week and listen. Where do you see this lack of silence and listening in your day to day life?

The second kind of silence I would describe is the silence of abuse. Firstly , the silence of the victim, who feels unable to speak out. Secondly, the silence of those who know about the abuse, but are unable to stop it and do not speak out. And thirdly, the silence of those who both know about the abuse and are in a position to make it stop, but do not take the necessary action to terminate it.

I wrote in a previous post about Ignatius’ description of how the enemy acts as a false lover, by whispering secrets and encouraging us not to tell, whether it is grooming or gas-lighting. He encourages us to speak out, to act against the compulsion to silence. I would like to illustrate with a story:

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: We are family.
Reading of Three kinds of silence, Part 2

Tara has been gas-lighted and abused by her family all of her life, and we see her at the beginning of the scene with no sense of her own self worth. She has lied, deceived and put her friends in danger, and they have just found out. Notice the movement in her from the beginning to the end of the scene, with each intervention. Willow firstly speaks forgiveness and understanding, and she is coming from a place of love; Buffy steps in with strength and protection and the others collectively draw out the truth of the abuse. Notice how her family respond to these interventions: with the continued lies and fallacious reasoning, anger and emotional blackmail. Until finally, Tara finds courage and strength to stand, to face down her abusers and to see herself as worthy of love and life. To me, this scene is excellent in its depiction of turmoil of spirits, and Tara’s responses show movements of desolation and consolation throughout the scene. From the position of protection, coming from a place of love, understanding and truth, light is shone on the abuse and it is brought to an end, and recovery is given the opportunity to begin.

There is no room for silence where abuse is concerned, and those who have been abused need those who know about it to listen and to act, so that they can speak out and we can collectively make it stop.

Light in the darkness

The third kind is the silence of prayer. In maintaining a silence during a retreat for example, or setting time aside at home in order to enter into that space where we can connect with God. This also includes a silence from all sorts of input via books, television, social media. It is cutting ourselves off from distractions, the urgency of the clamour that demands our attention. By silencing the cacophony of the world, we are creating a sacred space where we can enter into the depths of and with God. Imagine the feeling of walking along a beach alone, where hours pass and it feels like seconds, and now imagine that sense lasting and deepening over a period of days. It is also our silence and stillness when we place ourselves before Him to listen.

And it is also, sometimes, the silence when we hear nothing back from Him, as in the film “Silence”.

Reading of Three kinds of silence, part 3.

Such times, when we feel an absence of God’s presence, and we are consistently bombarded by the actions of the evil spirit manifested in others and in our own thoughts, it can be extremely painful and confusing. Ignatius has some useful advice to help us at such times:

…it will be very advantageous to intensify our activity against desolation. We can insist more on prayer, upon meditation, and on much examination of ourselves. We can make an effort in a suitable way to do some penance,

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. trans Loius J. Puhl S.J.

As I stated earlier, Ignatius offers three principle reasons why we suffer from desolation:

The first is because we have been tepid and slothful or negligent in our exercises of piety…

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. trans Loius J. Puhl S.J.

The second is because God wishes to try us to see how much we are worth, and how much we will advance in His service and praise when left without the generous reward of consolations and signal favors.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. trans Loius J. Puhl S.J.

The third reason is because God wishes to give us a true knowledge and understanding of ourselves, so that we may have an intimate perception of the fact that it is not within our power to acquire and attain great devotion…or any other spiritual consolation; but that all this is the gift and grace of God our Lord.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. trans Loius J. Puhl S.J.

So Ignatius encourages us, that while God does not cause desolation, He allows it for our ultimate benefit and uses it to draw us still closer and more deeply into Him. Ignatius advises us, that when we are in a time of consolation, we consider how we will conduct ourselves in a time of desolation and that we store up a supply of strength as defense against that day. In practice, this may mean that when we are in desolation we call to mind, during prayer or during our day to day activities, memories of past experiences of consolation and savour them.

I would like to invite you this week to notice silence in your life. Where is it coming from? Where is it leading to? What are your own inner movements in the silence, and as you notice the silence?

I will end with this cover, and video, of a classic song because the first time I saw it, I was moved and haunted by it, and I pondered it for quite a while afterwards.

What’s in a name?

Detail from the door at the Passion Facade of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.
What’s in a name? part 1. Recording of this post to make life a little easier for my dyslexic friends. Reads up to T S Eliot reading his poem, play this and then the reading of the next part and the song at the end. Enjoy, and please forgive any reading inconsistencies.

Recently, when a friend told me the name of a baby girl that he had learned from her parents, I responded with:

What a beautiful name!

He agreed and had been moved by it. I am fussy about my own name and by what I am called. I use both of my first names, and it does not contain a hyphen. It is not so unusual where I am from, but where I am living now everyone consistently tries to shorten it. It started when I went to university and my mum gave me some very good advice at the age of eighteen: she told me that if I wanted to be called by both names, I had to insist on it, otherwise I would end up always being called by only my first name, as had happened to her. So, I insist upon it.

As a teacher, whenever I meet a new class and I’m doing the register for the first time, I ask the students if they want to be called by their formal name , or do they have a shorter version of it they prefer: Joe instead of Joseph, for example. Quite a few of them tell me they do not really mind, and it always surprises me. I think it matters. Others do insist that I pronounce their names properly – quite rightly, and good on them.

So, what is in a name? Why is it so important? I read fantasy books during the holidays – these are my “trashy” novels that I like to relax with, escapism if you like. There are a couple of premises that run in the fantasy genre. The first is that the real name of someone or something is more than what it is called, it is what it is. It is the difference between a simile and a metaphor: not he is like a lion, but he is a lion. The sword in Christopher Paolini’s book Brisingr is not so much called fire, as it is fire.

The word brisingr is an ancient Old Norse word meaning “fire”, which Paolini found while reading through a dictionary of word origins. › wiki › Brisingr

In this genre, to know the true name of something or someone, gives you power over it or them. Eragon spends time learning the language of the elves, from which the true names in the natural world originate, so that he can improve his magic: In “The Gentleman Bastards” series, Locke Lamora never gives his true name to anyone, lest the Magicians learn it and use it against him, as they do with his friend Sam. In The Name of the Wind, the prologue of which is one of the most beautiful, poignant and haunting pieces of prose I have ever read in my life, Kvothe is able to call and control the wind at will, simply because he knows its name.

And this concept does not just belong to the fantasy genre. In Jesus A Pilgrimage, in relation to the healing of the demoniac, James Martin raises the point that it was a belief in the time of Jesus. He says:

In the ancient Near East, names held great significance and power.

Jesus A Pilgrimage. James Martin S.J.

When people are renamed in scripture; Abram as Abraham, Simon as Peter, it signifies a divinely ordered change of identity, a new life and mission.

Moreover, knowing a person’s name was believed to give someone power over that person…Thus, when Jesus asks the demon’s name, he poses a direct threat. “What is your name?” means “Let me have power over you.”

Jesus A Pilgrimage. James Martin S.J.

And the demon answers Jesus:

My name is Legion; for we are many.

Jesus A Pilgrimage. James Martin S.J.

The name is what it is, more than what it is called, it is the essence of being.

When we ask ourselves the big question:

Who am I?

what we are really asking is:

What is my name?

and even more than that, it is:

What is my name, the one that He gives me?

Who am I to Him?

To know who we are in God, to see ourselves as He sees us and to live accordingly is to make an election, it is to discover our personal vocation, the deepest desire of our soul, the state in life that draws us more deeply into Him. It is not what we do, it is who we are. It is to be free. And it takes God time and prayer: contemplation of God and of how God looks at me; of how God sees me.

I asked Him once:

Who am I to you?

and He gave me an answer. During my formation as a spiritual director “Discovering your Personal Vocation” by Herbert Alphonso S.J. was required reading. He closed the book with the poem:

The Naming Of Cats by T. S. Eliot
The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there’s the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey–
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter–
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum-
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover–
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

T. S. Eliot‘s poetry book Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.
What’s in a name? part 2

And it dawned on me that there is another Name, an adjective, and I’ve heard myself called it all my life, but dismissed even the thought of it as arrogance on my part. It is how He sees me, who I am to Him, and it is a name that is deeply affirming and leaves me in no doubt about being loved. So here, I invite you, if you have not already done so, to ask Him in prayer:

Who am I to you?

And I leave you with my response to hearing Him call my Name.