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March 8, 2016

Sit Still for a Moment!

By Eugene Hemrick

Tis better to be silent at the risk of being thought a fool than to talk and remove all doubt of it -- Maurice Switzer

In the previous lesson we alluded to the fact that listening with the ear of the heart requires silence and being still. By allowing us to hear each other more intimately, silence plays an important role in bonding friendships and creating community spirit. As we will learn in this lesson, it also centers us, strengthens our character and enhances our poise. Silence drove some of my classmates out of the seminary, while others couldn't wait to get away from it after ordination. We had the Great Silence in which all talk ceased after night prayers and didn't continue until breakfast. There were seven day silent retreats. Meals were sometimes eaten in silence, and every month began with a silent day of recollection. This is to say nothing about the silence we were to maintain at all times within our rooms and throughout the building. Nor did we have radios, television, magazines or newspapers, only textbooks and the quiet of our room.

I cherished silence, and to this day spend large amounts of time in it. Why this love affair with it? A sage maxim contains one answer, "There was a wise old owl who sat in a tree, the more he heard the less he spoke; the less he spoke the more he heard. Why can't we be like that wise old owl in the tree?"

Silence is at the root of wisdom. In observing a quiet, reflective religious brother, a friend commented, "Silent streams run deep": quiet reflectiveness denotes depth. St. Paul points out that Christ implores us: "Go into your room." In this statement, silence is portrayed as the room of our very being where our deepest thoughts and affections are contained; it is the doorway through which we enter into our very center.

Interestingly, silence is highly lauded at the entrance of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. for its role in preserving justice. As you enter it, you are greeted by a marble statue of a woman with her head bowed, an arm resting on a book of laws and a child sitting on her lap holding the scales of justice. At first she seems to be in pain, but upon closer observation the caption under this statue explains her true disposition. It reads: "The Contemplation of Justice." She is utilizing silence in order to go within herself and seek wisdom needed for insuring just laws. By eliminating distractions and creating a contemplative mood, The Contemplation of Justice is enabled to see the truth more clearly. Composure is an essential component of silence. There were times my world was crumbling in the seminary. Like most students, I was experiencing the crushing pressures of studies. When this occurred I would take quiet walks through the woods. This enabled me to get in touch with my inner feelings, to sort out problems and regroup. The result of this was returning to my room composed.

In his book Meditations Before Mass, Guardini describes the powers of composure. "It frees the mind from its many tempting claims and focuses it on one, the all-important. It calls the soul that is dispersed over myriad thoughts and desires, plans and intentions back to itself, re-establishing its depth."

While competing in a triathlon I learned silence not only restores composure, but also our nerve. Its first event, the swim race, started in ice cold choppy water. At the starting sound of the horn, I jumped into Chicago's Lake Michigan with thirty other swimmers. A quarter of the way through the mile swim many of those around me panicked because of the rough waters. The panic transferred to me; suddenly I felt totally helpless; I had lost my nerve. The thought hit me, "This is how easy it is to drown." As I threaded water, I reflected on my silent walks. This enabled me to go within myself and take hold of my emotions. Not only did this dispel my panic, but my nerve and strength returned. The result was a strong finish thanks to the composure generated by silence.

Silence has a noble side few people ever mention; it embellishes character by enabling us to be a person of weight. How does this happen? Romano Guardini gives us our answer in stating: "A life properly lived includes practice in silence. This begins with keeping our mouth shut whenever this is required by the confidence of another person, the duties of our vocation, tact, or respect for others. It goes on to include keeping silence at times even when it might be permissible to speak, especially if speaking would create an impression. Not to speak at such times is a good exercise in keeping our mastery over the inordinate desire to talk. We should strive to conquer the mania for constant chatter and idle talk. How many superfluous things we say in the course of the day, how many foolish things! We must learn that silence is beautiful, that it is not emptiness but true and full life."

We can add here that silence enables us to be in possession of our self, which in turn is the mark of character and possessing poise.

The first words I learned in Italian as a child were "stata zit," the Abruzzi words for "keep quiet." This was usually followed with, "You are to be seen, not heard." Chattering mindlessly often turns into self-centeredness and taking center stage. When we curtail the desire to talk ceaselessly, its silence reflects character. Why do we say this? It is because ceaselessly talking crowds out space not allowing another to get a word in edgewise. In curtailing it, space is created, the same space that is required for respecting another.

One of my most memorable teachers was French catechist, Fr. Didier Piviteau who exemplified the principle, "Only those who can be silent can teach well." He would lecture for about forty-five minutes, make his point and conclude with the word, "period", practicing the German principle Macht Punkt, which means make a period and cease talking. Another expression of Macht Punkt that was used in our home was "put a rock on it!"

After saying "period" Didier allowed for silence time, which is pedagogical wisdom par excellence! Why do we say this? It is because teachers tend to run out the clock when teaching, talking right up to the time the bell rings. The principle of Macht Punkt allows time to digest ideas and enables them to sink into the mind, our affections and heart. It those silent moments, Didier taught as much or more than when he was teaching.

While in my second assignment in a rural town, I conducted a census of our farms that gives us another dimension of Macht Punkt. On one of my first days out, I visited a farmer who was sitting on his front porch. I enthusiastically told him who I was and began explaining my plans for the parish. [You could say I was a youthful fast-talker in those days.] After each plan I presented, the farmer would just say, "yap", and nothing more. During our whole conversation, all I received back from him was, "yap." That "yap" taught me a lesson I never forgot: respectfully chose your words and avoid throwing them around randomly. The spoken word should always possess dignity and be used sparingly.

It is one thing to talk fast and be filled with enthusiasm, yet another matter to lack stillness in our speech. This doesn't mean saying nothing. Rather it means weighing words and thinking before blathering out ideas. It means slowing down the tempo in which we talk so the listener can enter into the conversation and is not held at bay. Speech so spoken exudes stillness; it is not rushed, thoughtless or disquieting. Rather it is restful, inviting and dignified.

Some people might feel that to effectively practice silence, we need to be a monk, or an introvert. Silence has nothing to do with introvert-extravert or living a quiet monastic life, rather it is about having a desire to cultivate it!

Having lived in noisy neighborhoods and sitting next to automobiles whose radios literally shook my car, I can fully understand the difficulty of cultivating silence. Maintaining any assemblage of a contemplative edge in our post-modern world is a Herculean task. As staggering as it is, it is paramount we practice it for maintaining our mental, physical and spiritual health. We can only wonder if the strength and composure it generates might just be the answer to countering an age that is becoming more and more reliant on hyper activity, constant stimulation and tranquilizers needed to offset our hectic activity; an age that has lost it poise. And, too, we need to be concerned about our fast-talking world negatively affecting our ability to develop composure.

Most advertisers employ fast talkers to sell produces. Politicians can't talk fast enough in presenting their side of an issue. The speed at which our news comes at us is astronomical. Wherever we look and whenever we listen, seldom do we encounter stillness of speech. Why be concerned and not just go with flow? It is because not only is our composure jeopardized, but also is dignified speech endangered. More often than not, it is tossed around randomly, spoken harshly and rushed, lacking the delightful rhythms, cadences and tempo for which it was created. When spoken properly, it is music to the ears. When employed improperly, it becomes cacophony.

A wonderful lesson classical musical teaches is the use of the pause. As frantic as may be a composition, it will usually contain rests and pauses to embellish its rhythms. Although we don't hear anything, the silence produced by rests and pauses is music. On this point, French Mime Artist Marcel Marceau once said, "Music and silence combine strongly because music is done with silence and silence is full of music." Macht Punkt!