Sunday, August 12, 2012

To Fall Silent

Speaking a lot about something does not in the least guarantee that understanding is thus furthered. On the contrary, talking at great length about something covers things over and brings what is understood into an illusory clarity, that is, the unintelligibility of the trivial....Authentic silence is possible only in genuine discourse. 
~Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, s. 34 

On account of being a total nerd and having 7.5 hours to kill on a trans-Atlantic flight yesterday, I was reading through Joan Stambaugh's revised translation of Martin Heidegger's Being and Time when my eye caught this passage.

There is a tendency to believe that, in order to pray, one must get the words right, as though prayer were some type of magical formula. "If I just get the words right," the thinking seems to go, "then I've really prayed."

Now, I'm not one to disparage formulaic prayer -- I use it, too. Indeed, the walk from the Jesuitenkolleg to class each day was perfect if one wanted to pray the rosary. Nevertheless, if prayer is limited simply to the recitation of formulas, something does seem to be missing.

Formulaic prayer is sort of like a Hallmark greeting card. It's readily available, it's convenient, and can be used as a substitute for those times when we are unable to show up in person. One cannot, however, live at the level of greeting-card spirituality. If we want to pray, if we really want to pray, we need to risk moving from the level of words and risk replacing our endless stream of words with a disposition toward listening. In other words, instead of sending a card, we need to show up.

Before I left for Austria, Brother Denis Weber and I went to Colombiere to visit Father Walter Farrell. Struggling for some time with cancer, I had the sense that this might be the last time I would get to visit with Walt on this side of eternity. There were so many things I wanted to say to him, to ask him. Yet, as I sat there, I could do nothing else but listen to him. It was an honor to listen to him, to hear of his eagerness to meet the Lord he had served for so long. My final words to, at least on this side of eternity...were simply, "Thank you." Having sat in near silence for an hour, these two words summarized everything I felt for Walt's life and ministry. No card, no email, no text message could replace being able to look another in the eye and say, simply, "Thank you."

Real prayer will always lead us to  a place of near-exhaustion, of running out of words and leaving us mute. Today's First Reading touches on this: Elijah, the ornery prophet, finally throws up his hands and cries out Enough is Enough!!

Elijah went a day's journey into the desert,
until he came to a broom tree and sat beneath. 
He prayed for death saying:
"This is enough, O LORD!
Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers."
He lay down and fell asleep under the broom tree.

No elaborate words, no special formula. Simply an expression of the heart's desire. To this prayer, the prayer of the human heart on the verge of failure, the human heart vulnerably expressing its deepest desires, the human heart fallen silent, to this heart can God speak. A heart made ready through authentic discourse, a real heart, a live person present and listening.

Note God's response. God gives Elijah a message, "Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!" God's response meets Elijah exactly where Elijah is; God's answer to Elijah's prayer isn't a blueprint for the future but, rather, simply the strength to continue on in his journey. Elijah is given the "daily bread" and walks further toward the mountain of God.  

Do you have the courage to pray? Do you have the courage to allow yourself to speak out from the innermost depths of your heart just what it is that you desire - even if it is a desire that frightens you! - and to fall silent, to show up in person, and await the response? Do you have the courage to pray from the expanse of the desert where you dwell, from within the cavern of your heart where you feel most alone, from the jungle where you feel lost? Do you dare pray, do you dare send up a signal flare toward the God who has been waiting for you? Do you dare risk real prayer, really showing up, because you're actually most afraid of being found? 

For many of us today, we can be seduced into a Text-Message spirituality: send in the right words and leave it. We must be vigilant that an authentic friendship with anyone requires showing up in person, demands that we spend time with another, that we risk sharing of ourselves and that can be silent while the Other shares himself or herself. Real silence isn't simply not talking. Real silence draws attention to the fact that we are together, that we are joined in a space where words fail, and in this silence we find ourselves drawn into a conversation where words are never enough.