Into Great Silence (and Myriad Marian Moments in a Cemetery)

Compared to other posts I’ve written lately, this one will be mercifully short; I’ve made two Lenten promises this year, and the first is not to spend any time at home online. Although my rich email correspondence with my friends and family has already taken a hit, I’m going to restrict my internet usage to snippets of time during work hours. Already it’s been marvelously freeing, a far more rewarding Lent than any other year when all I’ve given up was chocolate. I get home, and a vast spread of time opens up before me to be productive in so many obvious yet long-neglected ways: to read, to clean, to pray, to spend a lot of time with my housemates without feeling the need to check my email every ten minutes and, once there, to stay and check the blogroll repeatedly. Real time passes more slowly than virtual time, and it affords mental silence, stillness, and peace. (My second Lenten promise is, with all of this free time, to conduct a nightly examination of consciousness, or prayerful reflection on the “day-in-review.”)

The idea for this promise came a week or so ago. The Jesuits were generous enough to send me on a silent retreat in Culver City, a suburb just south of Los Angeles. Free from the influence of communications technology, and unable, moreover, to talk, I spent many hours “staring into space” — wonderfully meditatively so. “Armchair mysticism” helps to answer the question that gnaws on many theists: isn’t prayer, which had ought to be dialogical, really indistinguishable from the interior monologuing we all engage in all the time, save, perhaps, that it tenuously identifies God as its nominal object? I think, though, that prolonged interior monologuing is qualitatively different from our ordinary stolen moments of cogitation between tasks. After several minutes of contemplation in which the buzzing and whirring slows down and the distractions dissolve, we attain a different mental rhythm; thought becomes more and more like slipping into a warm bath of silence which after some time we are loathe to leave. A feeling of peace spreads. I’ve been reflecting lately on the theological problem of God’s “silence” — as though God were a speaking being who had simply chosen, for the hell of it, to stop talking to us. Entering into silent prayer and experiencing that peace convinces me that perhaps God is not silent, per se, but is rather silence itself, otherworldly and serene, encountered at the mouth of Elijah’s cave after the wind and the fire and the earthquake have passed away.

I wanted more of this silence: hence the two Lenten promises. Eliminate a potent distraction, and fill some of that free time with prayer. Catholics today are frequently reminded that our desert experience of Lent need not necessarily take the form of sacrifice; but neither does sacrifice cause desolation. Sacrifice can free us, can expose us to depths of experience where joy lies hidden. Today a parishioner was thanking me (as many often do) for my “sacrifice” as a Jesuit volunteer working without pay, and I tried my best to explain that it almost sounds obscene to me to hear my experience described as a sacrifice; I’ve gained more this year than in any other year in recent memory.

(This is not to say that we ought not, during Lent, reflect upon all that is somber in our existence. After all, it begins on Ash Wednesday, that ominous day when Catholic Christians are branded with an ashen cross on their foreheads by a priest intoning the words, “Remember: thou art dust, and to dust shalt thou return.” Modern woman and man need such a reminder, such a re-focusing. This need not be lugubrious, since, as we are frequently admonished, the promise of Resurrection lies at the end of the Lenten tunnel; but it should be sober and serious.)

During the retreat, I had some free time to take a long walk one morning. I went to the Holy Cross cemetery in Culver City, a magnificent tall hill whose graves are marked by nothing more than flat plates set into the earth — nothing vertical, nothing calling attention to itself. Struggling to regain my breath after climbing to the top of the hill, I looked out over the city of Los Angeles, which spread out beneath me. The smog didn’t seem too terribly thick. Over the valley, one solitary hawk glided imperturbably, as lonely in the sky as the one sun. I wondered, first, whether at other places in the city, others were watching that one hawk, and then, I think more profoundly, I imagined myself in the brain of the bird, seeing all, and uniquely. The only creature of its species occupying that large swath of sky at that precise moment, where were its friends, its kin? From over the hill behind me came the sound of a bagpipe which played without ceasing for quite some time. I wondered why this croaking horn is the instrument of funerals, the voice of death. It’s because it carries over the hills, I suppose, in a way other instruments can’t. Its triumphalism must mean that it is not, in fact, the voice of death, but of that aforementioned resurrection.

I love to be on high, to see sprawling spaces made small beneath me, capable of being held in a single gaze; without anything else to do or anywhere else to be, I stood there for twenty peaceful minutes. When I’d had my fill of staring, and the sun had begun to burn, and the hawk was still wheeling over the valley, I turned and went and sat beneath a crooked linden tree which afforded me a little shade. I looked down at my feet. Two tombstones, side by side, read:

To my beloved husband – EARL ANTHONY SMITH 1904-1977 –

A kind, gentle, loving man – May God watch over you.

And:

To my beloved wife – FLORENCE MARIA WAGNER SMITH 1908-1998 –

43 years of happy marriage – We loved each other.

Moved, I thought about life, love, marriage, and death.

Leaning against the trunk of the linden tree, I could gaze at a statue of Mary about twenty yards away. From her perch at the height of the hill, she watched beneficently over those who had fallen asleep. After thirty or forty minutes I got up and drew closer to this statue, taking a seat on a bench in the sun and gazing up at the soft features of her face. Without Mary, the genius of Christianity would be dimmed. A suffering Christ captures so much of the human experience, and that which is so central to so many people’s lives, but we also need an emblem of that peace which our hearts long to see personified too. God the Father offers so much more besides patriarchalism, but we also need a Mother, and according to the Gospel of John, this is precisely what Christ bequeathed humanity in his last minutes on the Cross. The endless litany of names of Mary speaks to the versatility of the feminine wisdom, the myriad hopes it can fulfill: Mary, Help of Christians, Star of the Sea, Seat of Wisdom, Cause of Our Joy, Mother of God, Mother of Mercy, Queen of Heaven, Queen of Peace, Our Lady of Sorrows, of Perpetual Help, of the Lakes, of the Hills, and of the Snows…  

In my work here in San Antonio, I’ve felt a divide slowly growing between my own understanding of the Catholic faith (which, the more I read Rahner, the more I want to call “Rahnerian”) and the more conventionally pietistic perspective I feel forced to adopt in speaking with my clients and with members of the parish. These “styles” of Christianity are not, in principle, contradictory; they definitely point to the same Ultimate Reality. But they are different. Looking into the white eyes of flecked stone, I wanted to add a few Marian apostrophes of my own: Ave Maria, Our Lady of Deep Scrutiny, Queen of Perpetual Concentration, Mother of Infinite Care…and Genius of the World. All statues, I suppose, have a lot of time to contemplate things, but given that I’ve been struck before by the inner life of Mary, by Mary as mystic, and given that I was spending the weekend practicing prayer and meditation anyway, this was a lovely moment for me which I don’t know whether I’ll succeed in explaining. I’ve chastized myself many times this year for having lived so long in a world of ideas, as supposedly distinct from a community of “real” people. Yet we are essentially best defined by our ideas, or at least, in this world of differentiated consciousnesses, it is by our ideas that our essence is mediated. All actions pass through a thought process on their way to being performed; when we find a friend, is it not because we share an understanding, and when we fall in love, is it not because we wish to enter the world of another’s feelings, convictions, and inspirations? Before the Thoughtful Mother I began to feel guilty for having disparaged, before myself and others, the life of the mind simply because its academic guardians are as humanly flawed as all of us are and as liable to mess things up.

“Intelligence is a moral category,” says Adorno. Perhaps less forbiddingly, Meister Eckhart says, “What a man takes in by contemplation, that he pours out in love.” I like best the linkage von Balthasar makes in saying that the person who does not know how to pray soon will no longer be able to love; while this may overstate the case a bit, truly to reflect and to contemplate, to be thoughtful, has something to do with becoming compassionate, because in learning to probe the depths of a person or situation, we begin to see not as humans see — the external appearance — but as God sees; to come into communion with who people and with what things essentially are. And what we essentially are, in the Christian anthropology, is lovable. 

The Church has a beautiful term for that mental contemplation which is integrally related to tender and compassionate love: adoration. Catholics adore the Eucharist (that is, we pray in silent reverence before the consecrated Host). The attitude of the angels towards God is described as adoring (an attitude quite beautifully evoked by this lovely 12th century Novgorod icon, one of my favorites, of an angel in rapt adoration):

And if there is a God who regards us and regards creation, the attitude of that regard is surely adoring. The fleeting thought that a God exists who is currently contemplating me — that I am worthy of contemplation — and that the deep valleys and vast seas and hidden caverns and all the complex topography of my being can be held and probed in this steady, loving, fascinated gaze (like the landscape of Los Angeles watched over by a vigiliant, gliding, protective hawk) — stirs a tremor in my soul. May we all see God someday, not as in a glass darkly, but face to adoring face.

I don’t know what my purpose is in constructing this disjointed narrative of arcane moments, except that maybe it is to say that there is much in the world worth contemplating, patiently and adoringly and without distraction. Go for a walk and you will surely find your own examples more personal than any I am offering here. Silence helps. The internet usually doesn’t.

One last curiosity comes to mind. As I sat before the statue of Mary, a tiny songbird perched on a shrub caught my attention, not sixteen inches from my face. I have no idea what kind it was, but it had a strange little crest on its forehead, like a high-schooler’s hair greased full of mousse before prom. This little bird stood watching me and barely moved.

When I got up and started heading down the hill, I glanced back at Mary’s elegant profile, and saw that my pompadoured friend had relocated himself to the top of Mary’s head. Chin down, the little creature’s silhouette made it appear as though he, too, were deep in prayer. I expected him to fly away after a few seconds, as birds so often seem to do, but he didn’t. He stood stalk still, even after I’d stopped in my own tracks to stare at him from afar. He didn’t fly away for a long, long time.

Beautiful.

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