Speaking (or writing) about silence is an enterprise embedded in paradox; every word represents a departure from, an obstacle to, the subject at hand. Oxford don Diarmaid MacCulloch (who created a splash with his Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years) begins this improbable task of recounting the story of Christian silence by appealing to a dog who did not bark in a Sherlock Holmes story. The great detective discerns a clue in the animal’s silence (a dog that does not bark is a dog who knows the person approaching it; this little insight helped Sherlock to crack the case). It’s a fun story, it establishes why paying attention to silence makes sense, and it falls into the most common traps: it defines silence by what is absent. It’s an error that dogs (pardon the pun) MacCulloch throughout Silence: A Christian History, and despite this, it’s a wonderful book; because, after all, much silence really is about absence, and MacCulloch insightfully ferrets out such absences within church history; even, and perhaps especially, when such silence does not necessarily flatter the faith community.
Following the same convention from his earlier book — that the history of Christianity really begins with the Hebrew Scriptures, hence the 3,000 years — the author rapidly covers the entire sweep of Biblical history, from there going to visit the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the monks and mystics of the middle ages, and the role silence played during the “three reformations” (the iconoclast controversy, the Gregorian reform, and of course the Protestant Reformation). But for the second half of the book he considers silence after the Reformation in primarily socio-political ways — the silences of Jews in the Spain of the inquisition, or of both Catholics and Protestants having to navigate the hostilities of the Reformation, to — most damning of all — a trilogy of the church’s historical silences in the face of injustice: silence during the holocaust, or during the slave trade, or of the institutional church in response to clerical child abuse. It’s a sober lesson, especially for those of us who advocate for contemplative silence: when it is accomplice to the abuse of power (or even the neglect of responsibility) silence really does equal death (as the old AIDS activists used to say). Nothing radical here: after all, isn’t contemplative silence a dying to self? But a freely chosen contemplative silence is always silence as an oblation — a gift; unlike the silence that left no hope for the persecuted Jew, the enslaved African, or the abused acolyte. Those silences are not oblations; they are forms of murder. So perhaps it is not surprising that MacCulloch sees “whistle-blowing” as a “variety of breaking of Christian silence” which “is much to be cherished.”
As important as these silences-of-absence are to this narrative, MacCulloch understands that silence does have a salutory role within the spiritual life of faith, and so he celebrates Orthodox icons as a silent mystical alternative to the noisiness of the liturgy, and laments how the din of Protestantism with its endless sermonizing and self-referential testimonializing served to thwart the fragile beauty of contemplative silence. Thus he nods approvingly, if too briefly, toward the “democratization of spiritual exploration” following the legacy of Thomas Merton (indeed, this blog would be considered a voice of that democratization), and he recognizes the role that silence plays in contemporary ecumenical and interfaith liturgies and prayer services. When works so easily divide us, silence is a viable alternative. But I’m not sure whether MacCulloch sees such silences as gifts in themselves, or simply as respite from the clamor of our divisive discourse.
I think this is a very important book and I hope it finds a broad audience. Readers who are already convinced lovers of silence (i.e., contemplatives) might be put off by its political and at times polemical tone, but I hope they (we) stick with it, because I think his point (that silence can be just as dangerous as it can be liberating) needs forceful expression, especially in our noisy time. Those seeking a deep and broad appreciation of contemplative silence may find that this book ends up more of an hors-d’oeuvre than a main course. But it’s a tasty enough appetizer, and thanks to the histories of spirituality or mysticism penned by folks like Bernard McGinn or Louis Bouyer, other resources exist for those who seek to dive more deeply into the specifically contemplative treasure of silence.
Disclosure: a complimentary review copy of the book reviewed in this post was supplied to me by the publisher. If you follow the link of a book mentioned in this post and purchase it or other products from Amazon.com, I receive a small commission from Amazon. Thank you for doing so — it is the easiest way you can support this blog.