“It was said of Abba Agathon that for three years
he lived with a stone in his mouth...
until he had learned to keep silence.”
The Sayings of The Desert Fathers
Silence. Its either the most welcoming or most terrifying concept for human beings. The first time I went to a week long silent retreat I remember experiencing something close to a panic around day three. Our days were locked into a rhythm of three double sit periods a day, punctuated by time alone, with breaks of alone time, sprinkled with more time alone on top. During the meals we would sit together, and never speak…quietly lowering our gaze as we passed other people so as not to disturb their solitude. It was probably the fourth day when silence really began to do its work on me: during dinner, while eating a salad and traveling to Oz and back between bites…I was passing the time lost in my own daydreams when I suddenly came back to earth and stared at the lettuce I was about to put in my mouth.
Really. Stared. At. It.
It was a classic, barely-crunchy, mostly-translucent, more-white-than-green leaf of iceberg lettuce—what you would expect from a salad bar at a monastery. But the light hit it just right at that exact moment, illuminating the little network of veins that made up this little leaf and it stopped me in my tracks mid fork lift. Suddenly, I became aware of the history of this leaf: where it might have grown, the rain and water it received, the smell of the earth it came from, the effort of life to push through the soil and become, the hands who harvested it, the distance it traveled, the person who washed it and dumped into this container…the “whole picture” of the story of THIS particular vegetable that was about to become part of me.
The realization that I was eating a product of the cosmos, a system of time, and a network of human hands hit me with a force that seemed to call out from the lettuce itself “LOOK at me!”...and the veil fell away from the necessity of the ordinary, revealing instead the sacredness of the communion of this mundane act we so casually call “eating”.
Of course, I did what anyone would do. I looked at my fellow retreatants like a crazed girl high on life: “Holy shit—do you guys SEE this lettuce?!!!” I more or less tried to telepathically communicate with my expression and looks. Being far more seasoned than I, however, they didn’t even look up at me or notice this cosmically, life-altering, communion I was having with my salad. It was brutally humbling. Not given the option to tell everyone what an extraordinary insight I had experienced, the lettuce-revelation-cased-in-a-week-of-silence seemed to quietly ask me: is it enough for you to see this? Or is it only valuable to you if you talk about it?
For three more days my inability to express what had happened aged itself within me into a quiet posture of humility every time I raised my fork: maybe this is what was originally intended with the blessing of food.
In the absence of our usual modes of expression, my expression changed. Rather than it being something I talked about, it became something I lived my way into. Silence teaches us the difference, but we rarely listen: eager as we are to assume that the usual modes of communicating are the only way we can know each other or be known, terrified as we are to face the truth of the naked solitude of being.
Under the guise of self-expression we allow ourselves to vomit all over each other, to justify reactiveness as self-empowerment, and to subject one another to rants of emotionality as if it were synonymous with intimacy. Language has become mindless, unfiltered, and vapid. Words have become un-weighted and thrown out as if they have no meaning, no correlation with the agency of action they represent. “I didn’t really mean that,” “ I was just venting” or “well, that was just locker room talk,” we say.
We shoot off words in reaction to reactive words, we take to facebook to “express” our anger at the injustice we see happening in the world, we tweet and text without feeling words sound themselves out in the shape of our own voices…and what is this noise accomplishing, exactly? Are we communicating something with the real hope of actual transformation, or are we talking at everyone, unconsciously elevating ourselves while judgmentally blanketing others as ignorant?
How much of our “expression” is really just dissipating energy before giving that energy (thoughts, ideas, words), an opportunity to root deeply and form something truly new within us and in the world? What might happen if we carried a stone in our mouth like the desert father Abba Agathon until we learned the value what is worth expressing…and how?
Perhaps we can begin with simply considering the definition of “express”. It comes from the latin expressare, which means to press (pressare) out (ex). The Old French Expresser was utilized in late Middle English to mean to ‘press out, obtain by squeezing or wringing.’
Doesn’t exactly sound like an unfiltered process, does it? On the contrary, the definition denotes a process of harvesting something from deep within. Expression, understood in this way, is far closer to what Rilke describes in his Letters to a Young Poet:
“Let your judgements follow their quiet, undisturbed evolution, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be pressured or hurried in any way. It’s all about carrying to term and giving birth. To let every impression and every seed of a feeling realize itself on its own, in the dark, in the unconveayble, the unconscious, beyond the reach of your understanding, and await with deep humilityand patience the hour when a new clarity is born…”
Perhaps this is why tears are such a sacred expression…a pressing out of this “not knowing” in a tender and vulnerable admission that can’t be explained in words. Its not surprising, therefore, that expression has also come to mean the very look we carry on our face.
At a friends house recently, I was frustratingly wrestling with my words and myself, teetering on the verge of tears when my friend looked at me and said gently: Brie, what if you didn’t have to explain yourself anymore…both to yourself and to everyone else?
Her words, weighted and slow…in the warm timber of her voice, became a lettuce-like-revelation, unlocking something within me.
How much of our lives are lived in the rut of creating and re-creating a narrative to make sense of things…the words of the story we tell ourselves over and over? How much of our talking is akin to blindly casting ropes out… as if we could contain the shape of life, as if we could know each other through the tethers and lassos of words?
After all….is the real source of knowing one another measured by how many words we’ve shared, or stories we create, and narratives we build?
Is not what is most deeply true about ourselves, what is most intimate, immediately reached and touched by a simple glance exchanged with a beloved? Do we not find ourselves in the face of great love and great pain with an inability to explain or categorize into words what feels too deep to express?
Is not beauty that which ultimately leads us to silence?
I’d like to suggest that we all try and hold a stone in our mouths—figuratively—for the next week…patiently learning how to contain the impulse to jump right in and say something, and instead begin to find our way to true expression: realizing that what really needs to be said will push its way out, like golden oil from an olive press, in time and in ways that don’t always require talking.
What if we were to experiment with keeping silence for a period of time every day, just to discover and remember how much of our talking is really not expression at all?
As Teilhard de Chardin urges us:
We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the ways to something unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made passing through
some stages of instability—and that it may take a very long time.
And so it is with you;
Your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
Let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t force them on, as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be.
Give our Lord the benefit of believing that God’s hand is leading your,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.”
Keep your silence, evolutionaries.
Allow your feelings, ideas and insights to be planted deep within. Who knows what these seeds—given the time and patience to really take root—might grow into and be capable of one day expressing?