Current events had got me musing about words, silence, speech, and idle talk, even before my dear friend Myriah came to visit. She and I grant each other the exercise of free speech, even civil discourse, but I found that more than those are required by the law of love. I hope to write further on these topics soon, though I feel woefully inadequate. Meanwhile…
After Myriah had gone home, she wrote to thank me, and to apologize for what she thought was her own “noise” as she “tried to make sense of everything.” She said, “I came home and planned to curl up and read the Bible.” But family demands prevented her. I realized that I had robbed her of what should have been a respite from confusion, talking as I had as though raging and clanging could be truly rational. Probably we should have spent some part of our two-day visit reading the Gospel together. (The garden did rescue us several times.)
These were my thoughts this Saturday morning, as I prepared to attend Divine Liturgy for the Leavetaking of Pentecost. I was present to receive Communion, but I had read the Gospel for the day at home. It washed over me as a healing balm, not because its subject matter or meaning are any more pertinent than they have ever been, but because I know the Speaker to be Truth and Love incarnate, and His speech is in stark contrast to the loudest human sounds that accost our ears and eyes. I remembered this verse:
The words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in an earthen furnace, purified seven times. -Psalm 12:6
The Psalmist does not mean that God has to make seven rough drafts before He speaks, but that even our most refined and precious earthly things are only “something like” the Logos. These words of Christ from what is called “The Sermon on the Mount” were the Gospel reading for the day:
Give to the one who asks you, and do not reject the one who wants to borrow from you.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven, since he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Even the tax collectors do the same, don’t they? And if you only greet your brothers, what more do you do? Even the Gentiles do the same, don’t they?
So then, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
“Let us now look more closely at the lily and the bird from whom we are to learn. The bird keeps silent and waits: it knows, or rather it fully andfirmly believes, that everything takes place at its appointed time. Therefore the bird waits, but it knows that it is not granted to it to know the hour or the day; therefore it keeps silent. ‘It will surely take place at the appointed time,’ the bird says. Oh no, the bird does not say this, but keeps silent. But its silence speaks, and its silence says that it believes it, and because it believes it, it keeps silent and waits.” -Søren Kierkegaard
I worked very hard last week to compose a second post on Kierkegaard’s The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air, which I am reading along with Mags. No good fruit seemed to come from my effort, though I wrote many words in a draft and searched for appropriately themed photos. When earlier this week I heard from Simone Weil through her anthologist Laurie Gagne, who was interviewed on Mars Hill Audio, that a writer must often wait patiently for the right word, it made me think more hopefully about the outcome.
I had begun at least two weeks ago, writing about the new bird community just on the other side of my fence, a few feet away from me when I garden. They are tropical birds in several large cages, temporary residents while their owners are between houses, and they are noisily chirping and even screeching from dawn to dusk. That long time ago, as it seems now, I was focused on their being jungle birds, surely not the sort that inspired Kierkegaard’s contemplations. I cleverly speculated that if Kierkegaard had lived in the jungle he wouldn’t have been likely to write the book he did.
But more pertinent to my present situation, only days later, is the fact that they are caged birds. And right now, many of us the world over feel like caged birds, in our efforts to slow the spread of a quickly spreading virus. Some are less restricted than others because they are in a type of helping role, but they also are at more risk. I, who am healthy and feeling in some ways younger than ever, have been grouped with The Elderly; I am trying to submit meekly, in my mind as well as my body, to my classification and assigned task: to stay home. In this regard, what Kierkegaard writes about seeking God’s kingdom first is something to take to heart:
“But then, in a certain sense is there in fact nothing I shall do? Yes, quite true, in a certain sense there is nothing. You shall in the deepest sense make yourself nothing, become nothing before God, learn to keep silent. In this silence is the beginning, which is first to seek God’s kingdom.”
He does talk about how humans often enter into this silence when they are praying: “…as he became more and more fervent in prayer, he had less and less to say, and finally he became entirely silent…. indeed, he became what is, if possible, even more the opposite of talking than silence: he became a listener.”
Currently, the whole world is waiting. The necessity of waiting is a gift given to us, an opportunity, but if I only wait on the decisions of authorities and on the latest statistics, my waiting is of little value.
“This is also how it is with the lily, it keeps silence and waits. It does not ask impatiently, ‘When is the spring coming?’ [see Pippin’s daffodils at right] because it knows that it will come at the appointed time; it knows that it would not benefit in any way whatever if it were permitted to determine the seasons of the year. It does not say, ‘When will we get rain?’ or ‘When will we havesunshine?’ or ‘Now we have had too much rain,’ or ‘Now it is too hot.’ …. Then the moment comes, and when the moment comes, the silent lily understands that now is the moment, and makes use of it.”
Obviously I myself know little of this subject experientially, but Søren Kierkegaard and the birds and flowers and all of nature have a lot to share, which I love to pass on! Glory to God, that He somehow arranged for me to find this particular book, chosen for its brevity. Ha! Every paragraph seems to have a world of meaning that one could meditate on for a year. The author must have known how to wait for the right word, as Simone Weil talks about.
Suffering. Are we not all suffering right now? Suffering at the most superficial level by our own movements being curtailed, or because we can’t find our favorite food in the stores, all the way to those who are suffering in a holy and productive way, deeply in their souls, expressing coinherence with the healthcare workers of Italy or with the helplessly panic-stricken of any place. When I think of all the monastics and even my priest, who are accustomed to self-containment and waiting on God, who are praying for all the rest of us who pray little, I feel both grateful and ashamed. When I pray with them at all, via their live-streamed services, it strengthens my ability to wait.
Charles Williams coined that word coinherence that I used above, but I don’t think he invented the truth that each of us is mysteriously and mystically united to the other. Simone Weil knew about this, too, and not in a theoretical way, but in the compassion and solidarity that emanated from her heart. When she was only five, she heard that soldiers (in the first World War) had no ration of sugar, so she refused to eat sugar. And much later, when she was at the Sorbonne, we learn more from fellow student Simone de Beauvoir’s writings. When Weil heard about a famine in China, she burst into tears; de Beauvoir envied her for having a “heart that could beat across the world.”
Christ suffered on the Cross in taking on Himself all the death and suffering of mankind, and He calls us to do it for each other, to be little Christs, by the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s a mystery to me, for sure, but I hope that praying with my fellow creatures everywhere will help me to acquire more of this grace.
Regarding our own personal pain and death, Kierkegaard says that when we are silent, it makes our suffering less. This runs counter to modern culture in which we all want to talk in an effort to relieve suffering.
“The bird keeps silent and suffers. However much heartache it has, it keeps silent. Even the melancholic mourning dove of the desert or of solitude keeps silent. It sighs three times and then keeps silent, sighs again three times, but is essentially silent. For what it is it does not say; it does not complain; it accuses no one; it sighs only to fall silent again.Indeed, it is as if the silence would cause it to burst; therefore it must sigh in order to keep silent.”
And by that silence under suffering, Kierkegaard lists several ways suffering is eased; the bird – and potentially us humans! – are freed (I put these points into list form):
“1) From what makes the suffering more burdensome: from the misunderstood sympathy of others; 2) From what makes the suffering last longer: from all the talk of suffering; 3) From what makes the suffering into something worse than suffering: from the sin of impatience and sadness.”
Oh my, I’m afraid I have tempted you to the sin of impatience by my long post, so I am going to stop for now, though I still haven’t come to the end of my meditations on Kierkegaard’s First Discourse. Let me say, in closing, that I am praying with and for people everywhere who are distressed, joining my sighings with yours. I pray that our afflictions may be turned into the sighings of the mourning dove, who after all may be understandably melancholic about the true and sorry state of mankind. Her heartache and sighings become silence, and that is her prayer.
I didn’t know the name for it at the time, but one morning last week I experienced an acute and painful case of Cognitive Overload. It was the day I had been looking forward to for two months, when I would drive up to Pippin’s; the day before that I’d started packing my car with the books and food and even a 50-ft garden hose I was going to take to the family there in far-Northern California.
The morning of, I read an article about the coronavirus before I got dressed, and for the next two hours I debated whether I should change my plans. What if I were asymptomatically infected already? I could be the one responsible for bringing the pathogen to a relatively remote area. That was my main concern, and I worked myself into tears not being able to decide what to do.
Eventually all of my daughters weighed in, and the Professor, too. They didn’t just say, “Go ahead,” or “Come!” but they gave their reasons, which helped me choose among my own jangling thoughts and pick a course of action. I went.
I took along a dozen Mars Hill Audio Journal CD’s for the ride because I thought I might catch up on some of the interviews. One of the first ones I listened to was of Alan Jacobs talking about his book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. Toward the end of the interview when he and Ken Myers were talking about how thinking takes time and effort, and how “practical discernment must be cultivated and developed over time,” he mentioned a discussion he had with Jonathan Rauch about an aspect of thinking that Rauch told him he hadn’t emphasized enough; here are some snippets I transcribed:
“Jonathan Rauch reminded him of the inability of any one human being to bear the cognitive load of decision making that we are called upon to do every day… there is a necessity to offload some of this responsibility to a reliable and healthy community. Each of us individually can’t know what we need to know about every issue; that means we have to trust other people to help guide us and inform us. We just don’t have the cognitive energy to be able to do this…. that triage is impossible for any of us to do on our own. Don’t listen to the people who tell you to think for yourself. It’s not possible to think for yourself… we are always embedded both socially and temporally… That can work for us, if we see to it that we are properly and helpfully embedded.”
There I was, driving up Highway 5, peacefully following through on a decision that I had made by offloading some of my cognitive load. 🙂 When I had a husband to confer with, that would have been enough community. Various articles on the Internet aren’t helpful because they aren’t humans in my community, but thank God I am embedded in a family.
In the days since then, I’ve been grateful for other communities that I am part of, for better or worse, and the way they have taken some of the load. We pray that by God’s providence, whether the decisions of our civic authorities are always the best or not, they will turn out for the best in the end. The governor of my state said that everyone in my age group should stay home, period. Soon afterward, the more immediate area I live in came under “shelter in place” orders.
I remember the many years during which I would defer to my husband about many, many decisions that I didn’t always think he made with the most wisdom — even then I was often glad not to have to think through every last decision on my own; it was enough that I had the good judgment to defer. Maybe my tears last week were partly the cumulative outflow of five years of pent-up frustrations, the weight of a widow’s decision fatigue.
Before I learned of the governor’s edict, I had planned to attend church as soon as I returned, though everyone was debating about the prudence of that, even those of us who know that it’s not through the Holy Mysteries in the chalice that we could share pathogens. It’s all of us breathing parishioners and the surfaces we touch…. Here also I have been relieved of the exhausting effort to have perfect wisdom. My rector, with these words, has passed on to us the decision of our bishop to close the church for at least two weeks:
“Let us realize that we simply cannot know the burdens that our Bishops carry as pastors. We all heard the incredible words of the Savior on Sunday about the “Good Shepherd” in John 10 in honor of St Gregory Palamas, how a true bishop cares for the flock…. let’s remember that the bishop has the ‘mind of the Church’ and so we receive his words, actions and requests with joy, and yes, obedience.”
And Monk Seraphim of Mull Monastery, as he was embarking on a trip through five airports on his return to Scotland, wrote to us:
“This is not our time to ‘shine’ by showing empty courage and adolescent bravado. A Christian shines through humility and sacrifice of one’s self, sacrifice of one’s ‘courageous’ image in the world.
“We are human beings, made of flesh and bones. Flesh and bones can become Chalices of God’s presence in the world, but they can alsobecome ill. As a Christian, my duty is to comfort and to love, to keep myself and my neighbour from harm.”
“Pray for the weak and those most exposed, and try to help any way you can. Forget about ‘playing it cool’ – no one rejoices in our pride except the evil one. Be human. Be a human being, surrounded by human beings, loving them, helping them, protecting them. In this simple, living, non ‘heroic’ attitude is the Cross that will lead to the Resurrection.”
I did try to protect my fellow humans as I traveled down the state. I used so many homemade alcohol wipes at gas stations and rest stops that my hands were in great need of TLC last night. Today I’m resting from the trip, and feeling comforted and joyful because of God’s care for me.
I want to tell you, too, more about my visit and fun with the grandkids, but for now I’ll just mention that I saw a thousand ? or so Western Redbud trees and bushes on my travels. The grass on the California hills is still mostly brown, changing to gray-green in some places, and these bright pink splashes all over the place are also speaking JOY!
This portion of another pastor’s letter was passed on to us via our rector this week; it was written by Orthodox Bishop Irenei of London. I am comforted when our shepherds in Christ lead by their example of faith and love. I hope that you all have similar fortifying influences in your life, but if you can use one more good word on this topic…
The Church of Christ has endured through many centuries — in the course of which she has been confronted with countless illnesses and diseases, small and great — in solid faith and with peaceful hearts, each member of the Church knowing that he or she is part of no worldly or man-made institution, but the Harbour of Life that is Christ’s Body. We are fed the food not of men but of angels; we are inspired by the truth, not of this world, but of God Himself; and we are ruled, not by worldly fear which grows and begets more fear, but by the peace of Christ which surpasseth all understanding (Philippians 4.7) and brings unfailing comfort, whether in times of peace or peril. In the present moment, therefore, I urge you to be not afraid (Isaiah 43.1) nor let the concerns of the moment shake you from the firm foundation that is unhindered faith in the living God, Who heals the sick and restores the broken-hearted. The present situation may be a cause of great upset in the world around us, but in the Church, and in our Christian lives, we continue unhindered and undeterred in all that God has delivered into our hands for the salvation of our souls.
…local governments will be issuing various instructions and protocols for managing and controlling the spread and effects of this momentary health challenge: we urge all our faithful to be acquainted with these practical instructions…in all such things we should be examples to the world of pious trust in God that leads not to undisciplined alarm, but rather to a continuance of life in an untroubled spirit and undisturbed reliance on the Divine Will.
In our churches, we shall continue with the celebration of all our rites, customs, Divine Services and above all the offering and receipt of the Holy Mysteries in precisely the same manner as we have always done. No genuinely believing Christian can for one moment accept that the Holy Mysteries might bring or be the source of sickness or ill-health: by no means! The Mysteries of Christ are the true medicine of our souls and bodies, and bring nothing but life—and life eternal. Any whose hearts are troubled by present matters should pray fervently for an increase of faith so that fear can be cast aside; and the Church will continue her ancient witness to the love that is beyond fear, bringing the Holy Mysteries to the world, and to each of us, in a time when it needs them profoundly. Do not be afraid! As we sing so frequently in these Lenten days, God is with us! And He is merciful and loving, quick to hear and heal and save.
—With love in Christ,
IRENEI, Bishop of London and Western Europe (ROCOR)