The Poetry of Silence

In the mid 1800s, Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “The Word of God cannot be heard in the noisy world of today. And even if it were blazoned forth with all the panoply of noise so that it could be heard in the midst of all the other noise, then it would no longer be the Word of God. Therefore create silence.”

And in our time, Father Thomas Keating, one of the principle developers of contemplative prayer, wrote, “God’s first language is silence.”

So, I want to talk about the necessity of silence. But does that make sense? Silence infers “not talking.”

This leads us to the conundrum that has boggled humanity since the beginning of language:

How do we share our most profound experiences, when these are precisely our most inexpressible?

Which leads us to poetry, which I sometimes think of as language’s equivalence to the sideways glance. When we find ourselves in the dark, if we can’t make out an object by looking at it directly, if we can’t determine whether that thing is an owl perched on an old oak’s branch or a headless horseman, our peripheral vision is most effective. Exploring a concept or experience through poetry is like looking at it out of the corner of our eye. It will probably always be a bit blurry or hazy, but we gain that wonderful aha of recognition.

Poets understand that poems come from silence. Practiced readers of poetry understand that a poem will live vibrantly only when surrounded by silence. Just as you can’t talk while drinking a glass of water, a poem won’t glide through your mind and slide down your throat into your heart, unless you receive it in silence. Benedictines understand silence, too, but even more deeply.

Poets make art from words. Benedictines seek to attune their hearts to The Word, and then to remake their lives in response to hearing the Word.

Poets know that white space, the absence of ink around lines of poetry, opens the human understanding to the nuance and resonance of language, to the power of words to contain hidden and multiple associations. The close reading of a poem helps us be attentive to what is, as well as what is not, being expressed.

In spending time with the Sisters and Oblates of Saint Benedict’s Monastery, I have learned that Benedictines know that silence opens our hearts to God’s voice, carried on the surface of language. At the same time, silence also opens our souls to God’s presence, God’s Spirit above, beneath, ahead, behind, and all around us. Silence facilitates an encounter with God beyond our intellectual comprehension of God.

Richard Rohr writes that silence is a place of “nothingness, emptiness, vastness, formlessness, spaciousness,” where “There are no sides to take and only a wholeness to rest in—which frees us to act on behalf of love.”

Free to act on behalf of love? When I ponder the mystery of such incomprehensible liberty, a line from Hildegard of Bingen visits me—like a feather on the breath of God. And then this poem comes along and gives me a sideways glance at silence:

On the Breath of God

Cloud, you harbor electrically
charged ice crystals, the spark
of orange-tinged grace. How
do you drift east, confident
as a mountain range, then shape shift
into gray feather, fluidity of calm
buoyed to a listless stream?
Even while sole-curled around earth’s
magma core, I want to rise on thermals.
I want to swivel on the gravity
bringing musical rain down. Let us
be held in the silence of clouds.

Tracy Rittmueller, OblSB

Tracy Rittmueller is an oblate of Saint Benedict’s Monastery. She is a wife, mother, grandmother, poet/writer and founder/director of lyricality.org. She is currently working on a collection of essays regarding practices common to monastics and poets. She is also a winner of the 2020 American Benedictine Academy’s Monastic Essay Contest for her essay titled “Therefore Create Silence.”

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