Lately, it seems, everyone is talking about silence—how they have less of it, how they wish they had more of it, how our Twittering lives have eaten away at some fundamental interior space that we didn’t even know was fragile to begin with.
And the conversation about silence inspires its own cottage industry. You can purchase books on silence—both its history and its power. Beautiful movies have been released about suffering up against God’s silence, their accompanying soundtracks available for download.
My loved ones have paid to float in the inaudible buoyancy of isolation tanks. My mother, slightly claustrophobic, didn’t like it much. My brother, connoisseur of experience, enjoyed himself.
It’s a painful irony that we can only mark silence’s absence through talking. But if compassion makes up for what irony lacks, we’ve found one of the great, human mysteries: all too often articulating desire moves us further away from its object.
As any husband can attest, marriage plunges you into the confusing dialectics of speech and silence. Wisely, the Orthodox wedding ceremony has the couple say almost nothing—it lets the superabundance of symbol do the talking: a shared chalice of wine, a dance around a gem-encrusted book.
And then there’s marriage itself: so much regrettably said in moments of tiredness and frustration and depression, while at the same time an enormous love goes all too often unarticulated because it’s so enormous. How in this world, or in any other, can frail words transcend time yet also move through all the spaces of our daily living?
It’s no wonder so few saints write about the true mystery of marriage—like the Trinitarian God, it is unfathomable. Which is why I’m fascinated that St. Luke places both marriage and silence at the center of his gospel’s beginning.
There is Mary, shot through with song: every word she speaks in that first chapter, she’s actually singing.
The poet Jean Valentine, shot through with song herself, knows what this felt like, as you can tell in her poem “The River at Wolf”:
A day a year ago last summer
God filled me with himself, like gold, inside,
deeper inside than marrow.
In juxtaposition to Mary is the protective silence of her husband, Joseph, who in the entire gospel, even with all those canticles of Mary and Zachariah and Simeon, never utters a single line of speech.
For the Mother of God and her betrothed, the model from Ephesians 5:23 (“For the husband is the head of the wife…”) fits. Mary is all body: shivering lungs, throat pregnant with song. Joseph, with his quiet mechanics of the head, surrounds her, encloses her, yet opens himself so that she may more fully emerge, releasing all that she contains for the life of the world.
And as if to underline the fragility of their mutual articulation, later in the gospel Luke (9:9) fills the mouth of Herod with these words: “John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?”
Having severed the head from the body, the mouth from the lungs—having severed silence’s relationship to utterance—Herod is surprised to still be hearing anything at all. He thought he’d put an end to these annoying prophetic interruptions.
Clearly, Herod’s murderous intent came not from a desire for silence, but for a monologue where his word and the law, and thus the foundation of the world, would be one and the same.
I find special meaning in Luke’s examination of utterance precisely because I’m married to a poet—as Joseph was to Mary—and it’s a constant question for me whether I am facilitating or inhibiting her Magnificat, especially since I was trained in institutions that held men to account for their obstruction of women’s voices.
Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald: I was taught that each man required the woman to sacrifice herself on the altar of his literary ambition. Her muzzled pseudo-silence was the prerequisite for all he had to say.
I think about these dynamics whenever I bring my wife coffee at her writing desk: more and more I realize that my silence enables her speech. And more and more, I try to live up to this ideal.
Maybe this has something to do with why we want silence so much more now—when we have less of it, when our country is slowly bifurcating into a hard and mutually held intolerance for one another, an intolerance we proclaim unceasingly over the bubbles that are our kingdoms—Herods, all of us, with Twitter handles.
Maybe, we think, silence can heal us.
Marriage contains that dream, the dream of transforming noise into poetry through a perceptive, listening silence—distinct, sometimes even opposing, needs reconciled into a fragile moment when desire meets its object. Like lips on the shared glass of wine. Or like when my wife asks me if I’ve seen her copy of Jean Valentine.
I haven’t, so we get up from our desks, looking around in our shared world.
Christopher Poore serves as an assistant poetry editor at Narrative Magazine. His short story “Brief Life” is forthcoming in the Saint Katherine Review. He lives with his wife, the poet Gina Franco, in Galesburg, IL.