Silence and Words are Like Yin and Yang: a Contemplative Spirituality Needs Both

Silence and Words are Like Yin and Yang: a Contemplative Spirituality Needs Both December 26, 2018

How does language help us — or hinder us — as we try to express our understanding of God — probably the most inexpressible subject imaginable?

We adults can really get lost in our God-talk (the word “theology”? All it means is “God-talk”).

I love to talk to children about God — and about angels and spirits. I love it when they’re young enough that they don’t get tongue-tied with self-consciousness like the rest of us do.

But I also love how rich and complex God-talk can get, here on the adult level. That’s why I love to read the writings of great saints and mystics and poets who have found ways to express the inexpressible. You can’t capture God in a thought, or a sentence, or a book.

But there have been certain folks down the ages, fascinating men and women with colorful names like Meister Eckhart or Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite or Coventry Patmore or Hildegard of Bingen or Hadewijch or Evelyn Underhill, who somehow managed to at least give us a sideways glance into the heart of God. And so their writing is like a luminous mead, honey dripping from their fingertips, sticky with the inability to hold the mystery for more than a few seconds maybe, but — ah — what wonder there is, in that briefest of dances.

I’m interested in those hidden places deep in our hearts where we all feel klutzy and anxious and inadequate — those places where we secretly remain awkward and self-conscious. It’s that part of our thats that’s convinced that, whenever we walk into a room, everyone stops what they’re doing and looks at us — but not because we’re so suave or glamorous, but just the opposite: we’re nerds, we’re nervous, we’re just a bit out of step with all the cool kids and so it’s painfully obvious.

Over the years I have been surprised to learn, again and again, just how many of us have those scary places inside us. Even the cool kids have them. Even folks who were “cool kids” thirty years ago have them. We’re so much more alike than we are different.

So we’re all vulnerable and we’re all working overtime to appear not-so-vulnerable. And that’s the human condition. And somewhere in the middle of it, God comes sneaking. When we sit still and learn to pay attention to the silence between the words in our thoughts, we just might notice God poking around here and there, always making things better in the end but sometimes stirring it up quite a bit in the process.

But God is shy, and if we try to stare straight ahead into those eternal eyes, they suddenly disappear. So God is a mystery, too.

I love silence and I love words. And if you’ve read this far, I suspect you do too.

Some Words I Love

If you explore my blog, you will probably notice a few basic themes — topics I like to bring up again and again. Let’s look at a few of them here (you may see some others).

First, there’s silence, which is essential not only to healthy spirituality, but to healthy living, period. Sadly, in our time, many people have little or no access to silence. So we need to cultivate silence, both externally (finding quiet times and places) and internally (learning to notice, and pay attention to, the silence that exists deeper than our thoughts, feelings and imaginings).

Many people talk about experience as a key to spirituality (“I want to have an experience of God,” and so forth). I understand that impulse, and certainly it can impel us toward a meaningful encounter with the mystery. But even experience can be a distraction — getting caught up in the experience of God is like getting caught up in the feelings of love. Don’t get me wrong: feeling love is awesome!

But anyone who’s been happily married more than four or five years will tell you that love is ultimately about something a lot deeper than heady feelings. Likewise, if we mean it when we say we want God, sooner or later we will be taken far beyond the limits of our experience. True spirituality resides deep in silence, which is beyond our thoughts, intuitions, imaginings — yes, even beyond our experience.

Get silent enough, and you won’t experience God so much as God will experience you.

Our society has become very fragmented, hyper-individualistic, and consequently has lost much of its sense of community. But community matters. Spiritual traditions around the world instruct us to love our neighbors. We need community just like we need silence. So even though we have a cultural idea that spirituality is a private and solitary matter (“it’s between me and God”), I believe we need to overcome that bias and look for ways we can restore authentic community. I’m not sure what that looks like, but that’s one of the questions that tends to show up here again and again.

I’m a Lay Cistercian, meaning I follow a spiritual practice which comes out of the tradition of Christian monasticism — the centuries-old heritage of monks and nuns, men and women who have devoted their lives to intentional communities of prayer, contemplation, and meditation. One of the core principles of the monastic tradition is that the “queen of virtues” is humility, which can be defined as earthiness, self-forgetfulness, or a willingness to put honesty and relationships ahead of personal power or pride.

Humility is not the same thing as low self-esteem, or self-hatred. Rather, it is the ability to say “I don’t know,” “I’m not sure,” “Oops, I was wrong,” “I need you,” and “I’m vulnerable.” I will try to keep a spirit of humility in mind and heart as I write for this blog, and sometimes I will fail at that. Try to be gentle with me when you point out my mistakes — and please join with me in trying to keep a spirit of humility front and center.

I’ve written several books about mysticism — and you know, it’s a terrible word. It’s related to mystery, and to ecstasy, and to heaven, and to wonder, and to restfulness, and to prayer, and to interior transfiguration and transformation. It comes from the same Greek word as the word muteas in “the mute button” which silences your phone. So mysticism is all about silence. Yes, we’re back to silence: talk about contemplation or mysticism, and you find that they always lead you back to silence.

Spirituality seems to be a trendy topic, as in “I’m spiritual but not religious” — but do we really know what it is? I maintain that spirituality cannot be compartmentalized, so when we reflect on our spiritual lives, it will naturally spill over into our work, our values, how we handle money, and how we relate to the political scene.

I’ve said this before: but I’m very hesitant to discuss politics here because of the toxic nature of so much political conversation in our day, especially online. But I’m very interested in how we embed our spirituality in the most ordinary and down to earth ways, from washing the dishes to cleaning the litter box to buying lunch for the homeless person down the street from your office. It’s been said that a key to the spiritual life is learning to find God in all things. I think that’s really wise.

I love poetry. I love music and language and the body and the senses and a great poem dances with all of these. Many of the mystics were poets, and some of them (like John of the Cross) are considered truly great poets. But even the ones that get poo-poohed as mediocre are still alright in my book. I’m not very good at being a snob. I want everyone to find and be love.

Finally, I really love good stories. I love myths and folklore and various iterations of the hero’s (and heroine’s) journey. I love tales about the great saints and mystics of Christianity (and, while we’re at, those of other faiths too). I’m a total geek for all the beautiful and tragic and thought-provoking stories found in the Bible. Most important of all, I simply adore the story of Jesus Christ. Now, I do not assume that everyone who visits this blog is a follower of Jesus (although I’m sure many readers are).

But whether or not you place your faith in Jesus, I hope you will at least be able to see how the story of Christ is a powerful and beautiful entry-point into the spirituality of silence, prayer, humility, kenosis(a Greek word for “emptiness”) and — most important of all — love. You see, a good story can stir love in our hearts and bring peace to the restless places in our souls. It can even help us to feel just a little less vulnerable and afraid, or a little less angry. And these days, that’s something pretty much all of us could use.


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N.B. This post originally appeared, in slightly different form, on the “Welcome” page of my personal website, www.carlmccolman.com. I am revising that site, and re-writing that page, but I liked what I wrote here so I wanted to give it a new home. Since I’m on vacation this week, it seemed like a good time to post this here.

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