05 November 2009

Silence is of Eternity

Eye has not seen, nor ear heard; neither has it entered into the heart of man what things God has prepared for those that love Him (1 Corinthians 2:9).

What the eyes will see and the ears will hear -- could there be anything in the ability to speak that would do it justice? Even the brilliant mind of Saint Thomas Aquinas was left silent. Perhaps even contemplating this biblical verse to the very edge that our limited intellect can take us may be enough to reduce us to silence. When one has gone as far as the mind will allow, what else is there to be said? Being awestruck renders silence. Beholding renders silence. Being privy to deep celestial mysteries renders silence. Even if the simple exercise of listening to one another is to be effective, then quiet and stillness are necessary. In attempting to listen to the gentle whispers of the Almighty, heaven mandates silence.

In The Silence of Saint Thomas by Joseph Pieper are these words:

The last word of Saint Thomas is not communication but silence. And it is not death which takes the pen out of his hand. His tongue is stilled by the super-abundance of life in the mystery of God. He is silent, not because he has nothing further to say; he is silent because he has been allowed to glimpse into the inexpressible depths of that mystery which is not reached by any human thought or speech.

The acts of the canonization process record: On the feast of Saint Nicholas, in the year 1273, as Thomas turned back to his work after Holy Mass, he was strangely altered. He remained steadily silent; he did not write; he dictated nothing. He laid aside the Summa Theologica on which he had been working. Abruptly, in the middle of the treatise on the Sacrament of Penance, he stopped writing. Reginald, his friend, asks him, troubled: "Father, how can you want to stop such a great work?" Thomas answers only, "I can write no more." Reginald of Piperno seriously believed that his master and friend might have become mentally ill through his overwhelming burden of work. After a long while, he asks and urges once again. Thomas gives the answer: "Reginald, I can write no more. All that I have hitherto written seems to me nothing but straw. Reginald is stunned by his reply.

It’s almost as if the remarkable wisdom given to Saint Thomas Aquinas, far beyond what most humans beings receive, did not compare, however, to what he discovered, what enveloped him and reduced him to silence – so much so, that he was too awestruck to continue to let his pen record what he had never previously beheld.

In Sartor Resartus by the poet Thomas Carlyle, a character explaining the virtues of silence, concluded his exhortation by saying: “Speech is of Time, Silence is of Eternity.” The Augustinian Walter Hilton wrote in his Ladder of Perfection: “His [Jesus] Voice is so sweet and so mighty that it puts to silence in a soul all the jangling of all other speakers, for it is a Voice of power, softly founded in a pure soul.”