Silence in a Season of Fury


Silence in a Season of Fury

by Michael O’Brien

(adapted from the Advent, 2007, Studiobrien newsletter)

On a planet crammed with ever-increasing news of a volatile nature, which is the noise made when titanic ships meet unexpected icebergs, or the cacophony generated by an entire civilization wired for sound, observing and analyzing itself as it warps into unintelligible shapes, I hesitate as never before to add my own little bit of news.

It’s not much this month, but it is important to me and I hope it will be for you too. It’s the story of a man’s life. William Kurelek played a crucial role in my development as a Christian artist, when I got to know him a little in the final year of his life, which coincided with my first year as a full-time Christian artist. His funeral was on the same day as the opening of my first exhibit of Christian painting. In his final months, our visits together and our exchanges were few, yet they were always charged with meaning, because whenever he spoke it was never about trivial matters. The things he told me about the difficult path of Christian art have stayed with me ever since, signposts on the desert of the modern age. By the world’s measure they were little things, really, but they were of inestimable value to me, because they helped me find who I was, and what my gifts were for, and showed me that it was possible to prevail against seemingly insurmountable odds. Though Kurelek was an extremely quiet man by temperament, he spoke with his paintings, his writings, and above all with his life. He died in 1977, so in a sense the article is “old news.” Indeed, it was first published in 1995 in Image, a journal of the arts and religion. But old news has a way of becoming fresh again, and human lives that we thought were over have a way of becoming alive with significance for all times.

You can read his story by visiting the home page of the studio website or by clicking the link below:

The Passion of William Kurelek

Which brings me to the subject of speech and silence. Advent is beginning. The waiting time, the renewal of anticipation and hope. Seeking with the eyes of the heart the One who is the hope of all mankind, our Lord Jesus. And simultaneously as we prepare to commemorate the first coming of Jesus, we listen to the liturgical readings of this season, which present the vision of Christ’s second coming and the tribulations that will precede it. In the timeless moment (the eternal moment) of the holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we listen to our past and our future, and are living connected to them in the present.

As I get older (and older and older) I have sensed more and more the mysterious nature of Time. With an increasing urgency that has steadily grown in my thoughts during the past several years, I have been mystified and intrigued by what seems to be the acceleration of time itself. Perhaps this is due to my recent arrival at the threshold of old age, or perhaps it is due to the increasing complexification of contemporary life. It may also be due to the fact that there is less and less silence in our world as the consuming and entertainment and rhetoric of our era magnifies the spurious “lordship” of man at every turn.

It struck me recently that when the three wise men from the east knelt in front of the newborn Jesus they probably fell silent in a state of awe and attention. And on the day when Jesus appears in the clouds as he returns in glory, will we find ourselves chattering analytically about it and writing learned commentary on it, or will we be struck dumb? Moreover, will we fall to our knees in silent attention?

How rare the phenomenon of silence has become. So much noise. So little listening — especially the most important listening of all — to the “still quiet voice” of the Holy Spirit speaking in our hearts.

The Eucharistic Presence of Christ is “silent.” Yet he speaks powerfully in this silence, a language that we perceive to be wordlessness, which we have been programmed by an insanely noisy culture to misinterpret as non-communication, absence, even as a void of abandonment.

Yet this silence of Christ is a fundamental dimension of the word he desires to speak to us. We cannot yet understand it or appreciate it, because we want him to “talk” to us, to solve our problems as quickly and as efficiently as possible, during the little window of time we have allotted to him in our busy schedules. Focused on ourselves, our concerns, on a thousand matters other than the stunningly absolute truth of his presence, we do not experience his attention to us, his eyes upon us, his love for us. Thus we continue to chatter to him as we simultaneously strain to hear him with noise-filled ears, as if everything relies on us, as if we must penetrate a wall of indifference and unhearing. Nothing could be further from the truth. He hears and cares with total presence of heart/mind/soul, with a gaze that is constantly upon us, waiting for us to grow still, to rest in him, so that he might truly speak to us in the heart of our own soul.

It’s hard to know this in the marrow of the bones. We can believe it in the mind, of course, but it helps immeasurably to have the truth of it written in the “flesh” of experience. Have you ever personally known someone who hardly ever speaks, but who over the passage of time shows you his constant love? Slowly, slowly such steadfast love teaches us; slowly, slowly such love penetrates the barriers of the sovereign isolated self. Consider what it would mean if such a spouse or friend or child or stranger were to not only penetrate the ramparts of your heart in such a manner, but then went on to willingly die for you. If that happens, when that happens, we begin to understand just how deaf and blind we have been. Then, too, we can begin to love in the deeper waters of love, which is to say divine indwelling love.

None of us have ever experienced perfect love from other human beings. While some of us have experienced extraordinary human love, the fully attentive and sacrificial kind, both in the giving and receiving, it is always incomplete. But all of us can know the perfect love of the One who is Love itself. We need only stand still and wait for it, desire it, ask for it, turn the attention of the heart and soul to it, and then listen for what He would say to us in the language we have yet to learn.

In his book of meditations, The World of Silence, the philosopher Max Picard laments that contemporary man has become a “word-machine,” a “noise-machine.” He says that true speaking emerges only from inner silence, which unites us to the fundamental silence of Being. This silence is not a void in which there is nothing that can be said, or in which nothing that has been or will be said has any meaning. No, rather it is a state of awareness, a “seeing” of the true form of things, apprehending the harmonious relationship of things as they should be, the relationship of all beings to each other—an equilibrium of mutual presence, attention, gazing at the unique beauty and otherness of each and all. If we avoid the interior silence and stillness in which it becomes possible to sense this reality, we will not even know it is there. But if we do not flee it, if we wait and hope for it, it will be revealed. Then we begin to understand that silence is not the locking up of speech, but the necessary precondition for true speech.

Here are some random thoughts from Picard’s book:

“The origin of language is impenetrable, like that of every creature, because it came from the perfect love of the Creator. Only if man were to live constantly in perfect love, could he learn the origin of language and of all creatures.”

“Speech and silence belong together. To see speech without silence is like seeing Shakespeare’s fools without the solidity of Shakespeare’s heroes, or like seeing the martyrdom of the saints in medieval pictures without their transfiguration. Speech and silence, hero and fool, martyrdom and transfiguration — all are a unity.”

“Grief and silence also belong together. Grief achieves a poise in the breadth of silence. The force of the passions is lost, and grief, purged of passion, appears all the more clearly as pure grief. The lamentation in grief is transformed into the lamentation of silence. On the river of tears man travels back into silence.”

“Images are silent, but they speak in silence. They are a silent language. They are a station on the way from silence to language. They stand on the frontier where silence and language face each other closer than anywhere else, but the tension between them is resolved by beauty.”

“The silence of God is different from the silence of men. It is not opposed to the word: word and silence are one in God . . . The silence of God is transformed by love into the Word. The Word of God is a self-giving silence, giving itself to man. . . . In prayer the word rises from silence, just as every real word rises from silence, but it comes out of it only to travel straight to God.”

And from Max Picard’s Knowledge of Time:

“Nothing has changed the nature of man so much as the loss of silence. The invention of printing, technics, compulsory education — nothing has so altered man as this lack of relationship to silence, this fact that silence is no longer taken for granted as something as natural as the sky above or the air we breathe. Man who has lost silence has not merely lost one human quality, but his whole structure has been changed thereby.”

A holy and “silent” Advent to you all,

Michael O’Brien