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THE LADDER OF SILENCE

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By Gonzalinho da Costa

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The Montréal Review, March 2017

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Silence (Oil on Canvas) by Eugene Lushpin

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The ladder of silence consists of seven steps.

The first step is habitual prayer.

The second step is to speak only when necessary, whatever necessary, to the extent possible.

The third step is to reduce the noise of our external world under our control to a practicable minimum.

The fourth step is to grow in constant conversation with God and thereby to deepen our union with him.

The fifth step is to speak out against injustice and oppression.

The sixth step is to keep silent in the face of insult or injury.

The seventh step is to imitate Christ in his suffering and death on the cross.

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The ladder of silence consists of seven steps.

The first step of silence is habitual prayer.

If the language of God is silence, then the first step must be to learn it, listening in silence and speaking in silence. Silence is a conversation wherein words audible to us alone give voice to the desires residing deeply in our hearts and our hearts give voice to our inaudible desires.

Are our desires those of God? Evil desires arise from our own wells, not from God.

By forming habits of prayer, we begin to understand the nuances of silence, its indigenous idioms. We become fluent speakers, expert listeners of a second language, no longer visitors but inhabitants of a strange, not altogether alien land.

If the language of prayer is interior silence, it is fostered by exterior silence. We must quiet ourselves, speak less and less, only what is necessary, to the extent possible. This is the second step.

How can we hear ourselves, more so, listen to God, if the noise ever present in our midst—street vendors brandishing trinkets—continually calls out, hankering for our attention? And then our own mouths condemn us when they demonstrate the utter worthlessness of what we say.

Many times the Word of God tells us to bridle our tongue, to yank at the reins in order to control its impulse toward wildness. Religion is vain, we are told, if it does not control our tongue. Our tongue holds the power of life and death. Words are golden apples in silver settings—they persuade kings and break bones. Where words are many, sin is not wanting. From the same mouth come blessings and curses. And so on.

We ascend the third step of silence when we strive to bring the noise of the external world under our control, reducing it to a practicable minimum.

Our motivation is spiritual. We seek to reduce the din of the external world because the voice of God is not heard in hurricanes, earthquakes, or fire, but in stillness.

When the Red Army instigated the Battle of Berlin, the boom of the artillery blasts punctured the eardrums of the soldiers, causing them to bleed. Debilitating noise—noise that overwhelms our entire being—destroys our capacity to hear.

Tiniest noises, sufficiently invasive, can disturb a near perfect silence and impair our experience of stillness. A ceiling mouse will gnaw away not only at the rafters but also at our peace.

Despairingly, you might say that stopping noise is like outspreading our arms to stop the ocean from touching land. Consider then that there are many activities that we could immediately bring to heel—our time jawing on social media, slumping in the sofa in front of the television set, or commuting, stereo system endlessly streaming—in order to build our dome of silence.

When we have done what we can in order to cultivate our spirit of silence, we are rewarded with conversation with God in friendship. Gratuitously, he lifts us up to the fourth step, which is to speak and listen to the Father as his children, to Jesus as a brother, to the Holy Spirit as a constant companion, and to all three persons of the Trinity in friendship. We become seekers and finders.

The fourth step of silence is to grow in constant conversation with God and thereby to deepen our union with him.

In our daily lives, God speaks to us in manifold ways. He shows us his presence in creation—in the heavens, the moon and the stars, innumerable creatures—the sea monsters in the abyss, Leviathan—everything visible. He speaks to us through his Word and his breath, the Holy Spirit. He is seen, touched, and felt in the Holy Eucharist. He is present as the face of Jesus in our fellow human beings, in the words of Father Christian de Chergé, “the God in whose face I see yours.”

The fifth step of silence is a contradiction in terms. It is to speak out against injustice and oppression, according to the fourth beatitude, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice.” It is to imitate Christ in his public life of prophecy.

To speak out—a type of action—against injustice and oppression springs from our deep interior silence, our union with God in prayer. We are stricken by a moral imperative, the compulsion of Jeremiah the prophet. In our prayer, outrage and confusion is met with understanding, clarity, affirmation, wisdom, anointing, and courage, according to the providence of God. We are touched and called, as it were, like the prophets of old.

The sixth step of silence is to keep silent in the face of insult or injury.

This step identifies us more closely with Christ in his passion. In his public life, Jesus answered in wisdom—irrefutably—Pharisaic challenges to his religious and spiritual teachings and to his Messianic claims. His life of preaching upending the religious establishment could only but culminate in his ignominious rejection at Jerusalem, the mount of which he boldly ascended. Before the Sanhedrin and the judgment seat of Pilate, he responded truthfully, without retaliation, for which he was unjustly and with utmost cruelty condemned.

The seventh step of silence is to imitate Christ in his suffering and death on the cross.

We suffer and die in silence because our union with Christ is hidden and known only to God. Our silence is meek because we take up our cross in obedience to God’s will and to Jesus’ teachings. In embracing our very own personal cross, we look forward to Jesus’ promise that those who suffer and die in Christ will join him in the resurrection in glory on the Last Day. We act for love’s sake because it is for the sake of Christ that we willingly carry our cross.

Is there a step beyond the seventh?

Upon crossing the threshold of death and passing on to the next life, we take an eternal, irrevocable step. We might say that it is the eighth step of silence beyond our present life.

Medieval society conceived that the heavenly bodies, the sun, moon, planets, and stars, were embedded in a series of celestial spheres revolving about the earth like nested Matryoshka dolls, empowered in motion by an outermost sphere, Primum Mobile, beyond which, occupying the outermost region, subsisted an empyrean heaven in which God dwelled with his elect. The spheres were related to one other in space according to a series of proportions recapitulating musical intervals, Musica Universalis or “Music of the Spheres.” Musica Universalis was a mathematical series, silent music.

Those who pass on to the next life will join the silent music of the celestial spheres in eternal praise of God in a manner undisclosed to the present life. It is the eighth step of silence.

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