A few years ago a friend and fellow university president, Dr. Doug Orr, sent me an article he had written that included the following excerpt:
“There is not a culture in the world that doesn’t have singing, dancing, and storytelling – or that doesn’t honor silence. The sweet territory of silence is somehow connected to an appreciation of the mystery of life; times of solitude and silence – for reflection and contemplation. Singing, dancing, storytelling, and silence are the four universal healings held in the crucible of the arts.
“Among some Native American people, if you are dis-heartened or dispirited, the medicine person will ask you four questions:
- When in your life did you stop singing?
- When in your life did you stop dancing?
- When in your life did you stop being enchanted by stories, particularly your own life story?
- When in your life did you start being uncomfortable with the sweet territory of silence?
“Whenever you’ve stopped singing or dancing or being enchanted by stories, or feel uncomfortable with the sweet territory of silence, you have begun to experience soul loss and loss of spirit.”
When I read this wonderful quote, it reminded me of a book I read over 40 years ago, The Feast of Fools: a Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy, by Harvard theologian Harvey Cox. In the book, Cox reminds us of the importance of balancing our lives of festivity and fantasy – what he calls our transcendent self – with our daily lives of work and consequence, which he refers to as our historical self.
A great blessing in my life has been participating in, and, to some extent at least, helping to create the life of Bellarmine University – especially as it expresses its Catholic identity in a distinguished higher education tradition with roots in the 11th century – and getting to better know and spend time with the ideas and values of Thomas Merton.
In the Catholic tradition, there is a belief that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. As Merton comments, “To say I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love.” Merton also makes the point that it is our life’s work to get to know, respect, and understand the true self within us – and that that awareness and appreciation can be achieved only in contemplation, in silence.
But even in the 1950s, Merton was keenly aware of the tremendous challenge to achieving contemplation that is presented to us in our daily lives.
“The greatest need of our time,” he writes, “is to clean out the enormous mass of mental and emotional rubbish that clutters our mind. Further, “We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios and all the rest.”
And yet, despite the distraction, chaos and clutter, Merton affirms two truths: that each of us has a true, unique, self that was created by God, and that through contemplation and silence, we can get a better sense of that true self and of the accessible divinity, sacredness, and presence of God in everyday life.
Merton again, “Life is this simple: We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true.” Again, “Music is pleasing not only because of the sound but because of the silence that is in it: without the alternation of sound and silence there would be no rhythm.”
It is with this consciousness of the tradition of contemplation and action, with the sense that our true selves and the sacred and divine are accessible in our daily lives – but ultimately with a sense of the clutter and noise and distraction of today’s culture and society – that I ask and encourage our students, as I now ask you, to regularly enter that sweet territory of silence within which you can reflect and make sense of your experience.
Dr. Joseph J. McGowan | firstname.lastname@example.org