Preaching Through Silence

Preaching Through Silence September 18, 2017

Saint Pambo by unknown Orthodox Christian painter (Eastern Orthodox Church) [CC0, Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsPatriarch Theophilus of Alexandria, uncle and predecessor to St. Cyril of Alexandria, had a rather mixed relationship with the monks in the Egyptian desert. He knew and appreciated the value of their spirituality, but he also was mixed up in a great theological fight that took place in the desert, leading to monks fighting with monks, and great spiritual leaders often defending naïve theological formulations. This caused great ambivalence from the monks in regards to him; he was the Patriarch of Alexandria, and so they knew they should honor and respect him, but on the other hand, they distrusted him and often wanted little to nothing to do with him, fearing they would get caught up in some theological or political intrigue.[1]

It is therefore not surprising that when Theophilus would come to visit Scetis, Abba Pambo welcomed Theophilus with silence, using his silence as a form of preaching:

The same Abba Theophilus, the archbishop, came to Scetis one day. The brethren who were assembled said to Abba Pambo, ‘Say something to the archbishop, so that he may be edified.’ The old man said to them, ‘If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.’[2]

How Theophilus took that silence, we do not know. The saying suggested that if he took it appropriately, he would be edified, for he would accept the rebuke which is implicit in the silence and use it to reform himself. On the other hand, if he rejected it, then anything which Pambo could have said would have received a similar response, for Pambo would have spoken the words which the silence indicates, and Theophilus would have found himself dishonored by the monk. With the silence, there is an element of respect, suggesting Theophilus could understand and accept the rebuke, but if Pambo had used words, it would have indicated that Pambo thought less of Theophilus and so had treated him as an inferior instead of the rank and position he had as Patriarch.

This is quite typical with those with great spiritual presence. Pambo loved silence and loved to use it for others. We find something similar happening in China, but here, the story suggests that Emperor Wu was unable to appreciate the silence he was given and so was ridiculed for it:

One day the Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty, a devoted Buddhist follower, requested Fu Ta-shih (497-569), an outstanding lay Zen Buddhist of that day, to discourse on the Diamond Sutra. Fu sat solemnly in it, but uttered not a word. The Emperor said: ‘I asked you to give a discourse. Why do you not begin to speak?’  One of the Emperor’s attendants explained, saying, ‘Your Majesty, Fu has finished discoursing.’ What kind of a sermon did this silent Buddhist philosopher deliver? One Zen master, commenting on this story later on, said: ‘What an eloquent sermon it was!’[3]

Emperor Wu had great interest in the education of his people, and this was one of the many reasons he became very interested in Buddhism, taking Buddhist precepts while he was emperor. He was constantly searching out for Buddhist scholars and spiritual masters, to meet with them, talk with them, learn from them. While much of the motive was good, so that he was to be recognized so sincere in his Buddhism that would be entitled a Bodhisattva Emperor, he was still an emperor who liked to run things as an emperor should with pomp and circumstances, with deference to him and his authority.  He still had his faults, and some of them were grave and needed countering. This could be seen, for example, in his legendary encounter with Bodhidharma; the emperor was  exasperated because the Buddhist patriarch suggested that the emperor had yet to attain any merit despite all the donations he had given to the Buddhist community. The problem is that Emperor Wu had given for the sake of selfish gain, for the reward he thought he was owed for doing good, and so as Jesus would have said to him, he had already earned his reward for the fame which he wanted he had received. Such fame, while good in the world, is not the result of true merit.  After giving further questions to Bodhidharma which resulted in answers he could not appreciate, he had Bodhidharma cast out of his court, only to regret it later once he understood the mission and authority of Bodhidharma.  We can read this  famous encounter between Emperor Wu and Fu Ta-shih as continuing what he gained from Bodhidharma. He was still being educated; the emperor had to learn that authority was relative, and that the answers to his questions might be met with silence because it is only in such silence that he was given the sermon he needed, not the sermon he wanted. It was indeed very eloquent for Fu Ta-Shih to give such a silent sermon, for anything he said would have been taken wrongly by the emperor, while his silence, though annoying the emperor, gave him the shock he needed to truly open up to the path the Buddha set up in the world.

In these short stories about Theophilus and Emperor Wu, we are shown that silence can often speak louder than words. Someone who is expecting to be given words of wisdom but instead is met with silence must ponder what it is that caused such silence, what the meaning of the silence is, and so they must wrestle with silence in a way which they would not do if words were spoken. Silence does not always connote acceptance; silence often connotes transcendence, and those who receive the silent treatment from some transcendent spiritual master will feel the blow of such silence. What they do with what they receive will determine the value of the silence, its effectiveness, and whether or not those who gave such silence were wise sages or foolishness boasters. For sometimes, what is needed is not silence, but words;  sometimes silence, especially if it is forced silence, hinders the truth, and so silence is not always the proper response. When it is improper and used improperly, it is foolishness, even if it is done with the appearance of wisdom, just like words can be used in foolishness with the appearance of wisdom. Knowing when silence is to be used is difficult, indeed, it is only for the wise to give and only when they know the silence will be properly understood. This is why there is no one way to deal with all people at all times; rather we must always adapt to the needs of each person we encounter; sometimes they are ready for silence and will receive revelation by it, but other times they will confuse such silence as acceptance and will find themselves turned away from the truth by it. If we do not know which time it is, then it is time to speak, for then it is better to speak and silence our silence, lest we speak with our silence falsehoods which we will not be able to correct.


[Image=Saint Pambo by unknown Orthodox Christian painter (Eastern Orthodox Church) [CC0, Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]


[1] The greatest example of this intrigue was in the so-called Origenist crisis. Theophilus, who had read and respected Origen, went against anthropomorphic imaginations of God which many of the simple believers, including desert monks, accepted. Facing a revolt, he found himself having to speak out against Origen and what he believed could be said to be the excesses of Origenist theology while affirming that the divinity could be seen imagined in the human person because humans were made in the image and likeness of God. As a result, monks, usually more intellectual than the other desert fathers, the Tall Brethren, found themselves in a crossfire with Theophilus, fleeing Egypt and going to St. John Chrysostom for refuge.  This caused animosity between Theophilus and  John Chrysostom which continued even after the death of both parties, as can be seen in the letters of St Cyril of Alexandria to the successor of Chrysostom in Constantinople. This also made it look like to all involved that Theophilus was willing to engage political intrigue, and so the monks he backed were not always sure how much he backed them and how much he did what he did just to gain their support.

[2] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 81.

[3] Masao Abe, Zen And Comparative Studies: Part Two of a Two-Volume Sequel to Zen and Western Thought. ed. Steven Heine (Honolulu: University of Honolulu Press, 1997), 21.


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