Check out this insightful, evocative quotation from Barbara A. Holme’s wonderful book Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices in the Black Church:
Those who study contemplation have assumed that the difference between European and Africana approaches to contemplation is the presence or lack of silence … We tend to presume that one must create silent spaces for contemplation. It is as if we have drawn the spiritual veil around contemplative activity, seeking to distance prayerful and reflective practices from the noise of the world … In Africana contexts, this may mean that ineffability is translated into dance or song. Accordingly, an ontological silence can occupy the heart of cacophony, the interiority of celebratory worship.
In other words, while it is evident that silence is essential to contemplation and contemplative practice, there are many ways to enter into silence — and it is a mistake to assume that one culture’s relationship with silence should therefore be normative for all cultures.
Christians of European ancestry have a long heritage of embracing silence in religious settings — such as cathedrals or monasteries — as a way of disposing ourselves for contemplation. While this certainly has a Biblical foundation (“the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence” — Habakkuk 2:20), it is also an expression of our cultural “style” of contemplation.
Then, as European Christians began to encounter the contemplative traditions of the east — Advaita Vedanta, Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, and so forth — our cultural bias toward creating and maintaining silent spaces as the doorway to contemplation got reinforced by the meditative and mindfulness practices we encountered in these eastern wisdom traditions.
Silence Can Meet Us in Many Ways
But Barbara Holmes reminds us that there’s more than one way to find the silence of contemplation. Contemplative silence, after all, is primarily an interior silence — the capacity we all carry within us to listen.
I don’t think anyone will argue that places of exterior silence can be conducive to fostering interior silence. But perhaps it’s important to consider that interior silence — what Dr. Holmes calls “ontological silence” — can sometimes be met even in the midst of “celebratory worship” — the joyful exuberance of charismatic or pentecostal forms of religious expression, which are often prominent in African-American religious settings.
Why is exuberant joy such an important part of the African-American Christian experience? Why don’t black Christians embody the kind of “decency and good order” that characterizes so many white churches? The answer has both a political and theological dimension. For a community that suffered enslavement, brutality, violence, and ongoing oppression and cultural marginalization, the idea of silent religious observance might seem just a little bit too much like the kind of submission that was demanded of them by their oppressors.
How Do We Find Our Interior Silence (Even in the Midst of Noise)?
Part of why I’m loving Joy Unspeakable so much is how clearly the author illustrates that just because a cultural style of worship isn’t silent doesn’t mean it’s not contemplative. Anyone who is intentional about embracing a contemplative spirituality needs to foster that “ontological” or interior silence — whether we seek that silence through making a joyful noise or by being still.
Here’s the question. Whether we are black or white, Catholic or Protestant, extraverted or introverted, I believe we are all, in fact, called to that place of deep interior silence. So how, then, do we discern the “ontological silence” at the heart of cacophonous or celebratory
This is a question that I hope we can explore together in this blog and its comment section. If you have any thoughts about how you find the silence within — even in the midst of a communal joyful noise — please share your thoughts. How do you find, and recognize, the silence within, even when you’re in the midst of life’s music and noise? Let’s explore this together.