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Have you ever wanted to take a permanent vow of silence? You know, the kind preceded by a pursing of the lips, a twist of the wrist and the throwing away of an invisible key? I feel that way a lot. For all of my so-called proficiency with words on paper, I’m not a good speaker. Or even a good writer, a lot of the time. Sometimes my brain and my mouth aren’t exactly in sync. And other times I feel as if there is some secret code that everyone else knows but that has been withheld from me. In other words, for social, verbal creatures, we humans sure are good at offending one another. Often, we do not even mean to. There is simply no way to gauge how our words will affect another human being.

We can guess, of course. We know that certain words are hurtful or offensive. But what about the ones that seem to operate in secret — poisonous words that we thought were as bland as unbuttered popcorn, and just as lethal? And sometimes words aren’t even necessary. People have hated other people on sight since the beginning of time. There was a girl I knew in high school who confessed that she loathed me because the first time I opened my mouth in class, I used a polysyllabic word that raised her hackles. I was “a know-it-all.” A prig. Later, we became friends, but I never lost the sense that somehow this was against her better judgment — that I’d failed in some primal way, but had been forgiven for it. Only I still don’t know how I failed.

Haters gonna hate. Isn’t that what the kids are saying these days? Or maybe they used to say it and now it’s as dated as “groovy” and “right on, man.” How would I know? Clearly, words I see as peaceful doves can land like bombs without my consent or knowledge. No one can control how they are perceived by others. Even if they try really, really hard.

So I guess what I’m saying is: be kind. Remember that the person in front of you is as fragile and hurting as you are. We’re all just shivering piles of dust, flimsy and susceptible to blowing away in the lightest of gales. No one wants to be alone. No one wants to be hated. For better or worse, we’re stuck with one another. That’s going to necessitate a heap of compassion, a mound of forgiveness, a great mountain of understanding. It is the job of every one of us to add to the pile. If we claim to be good people, moral people, it is the job of a lifetime.

In the meantime, if I offend you, I’m sorry. I wish I could take that vow of silence and mean it, but I’m afraid I’m just not capable of it. It would mean hiding my light under a bushel basket for one thing, and I’m pretty sure God doesn’t support that kind of thing.

“The rest is silence,” says Hamlet as he breathes his last. Now there’s a guy I can relate to.

How did you learn to pray? I can’t honestly remember. I can recall my babyish list of people to bless, including “grandma, great-grandma and Auntie Myrt” — long since gone from this earth. Why did I pray for the elders on my father’s side but not for my mother’s father, alive until I was seven? At what age did I give up kneeling?

Lately, I’ve been thinking that my prayer life could use some radical change. I’ve been sticking to a formula for too long. Besides, any words I use seem minuscule and shabby compared to what I hope to convey. Maybe human language isn’t really built for prayer. And anyway, doesn’t God know our hearts better than we know them?

I’m not advocating that you cease praying. Prayer can lead to great self-knowledge. But maybe we need to consider whether our prayers are really for God…or for ourselves. What sort of prayer would please God? I’m not entirely sure, but if I had to listen to the human race in supplication day in and day out, I know what would please me: a little silence. Hence, the following poem:

I could, I suppose,
dispense with formalities:
words once bubbled from childish lips
no longer suit. Still.
How can I hope to bridge our mighty gap?
The words can’t come —
I haven’t learned the language.
I settle on syllables like unbuttered bread,
toddler words: “cat,” “dog,” “mama.”
I’d have to shed my heavy tongue
to speak the words I mean.
And there it is — revelation!
Perhaps my prayers are best silent.
Instead, I will throw open my heart;
You will read it.
I will not murmur, even when
You touch the painful places.

SilenceTo truly connect with God, we need to sit in silence so that we can listen, just listen.

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