The Light in Silence
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, July 11, 2021.
A Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist, Karl Stern, who escaped from Germany during the Holocaust, and converted to Catholicism, speaking in particular of the rise of Hitler, but also of humanity in general, wrote, “…the fallen male became the image of success for everyone, including women. The fallen male, the corrupted male, who destroyed the Tao, who destroyed the image.”
From time to time the image of God becomes blurred and almost forgotten. People forget what God “looks like,” how he sounds, how he is, and in the resulting vacuum create idols like the children of Israel and their Golden Calf. The search for an earthly savior always ends in the creation of an anti-Christ.
I truly believe our abuse of the earth is because we have lost sight of God who dwells in all things. Thomas Aquinas wrote that “God has produced a work in which the divine likeness is clearly reflected - I mean by this, the world itself.” What then does it mean when we do not reverence the earth? I also believe that hatred and racism is blasphemy and evidence of idolatry. If we refuse to reverence God’s image in others, then how can we say that we believe in the God who is in them? “By their fruits you shall know them.” A believer is as a believer does.
Moses remained on the mountain too long and the people grew restless. They needed a god to worship so they created a false one. They were no longer able to discern truth from falsehood exchanging their birthright for a bowl of pottage and darkness descended on the children of Israel.
All the while God was speaking with Moses alone on Sinai giving the Commandments and when Moses came down at last with his face glowing so brightly he had to cover it, the darkness into which they had fallen came into sharp focus. And after suffering dire consequences, order was restored. The Light of God had returned to them in the face of Moses.
The verse in today’s Gospel reading that chills me is this, “If the light in you is darkness, how very great is that darkness!” What this means is that we lose the ability to discern light from dark. We no longer see things as they are (glorious and filled with the Spirit), but rather as the darkness in us directs. We must be careful not to feed the darkness.
We must be careful not to project it onto the world.
“The fullness of joy,” writes Dame Julian of Norwich, “is to behold God in everything.”
The great Western mystic Meister Eckhart spoke eloquently of the silence in us and pins its recovery to the necessity and practice of stillness in a way that St. Symeon the New Theologian and the Hesychasts would certainly recognize.
Eckhart wrote, "There is a huge silence inside each of us that beckons us into itself, and the recovery of our own silence can begin to teach us the language of heaven." To this great mystic the recovery of “our silence” is a prerequisite to the discovery of the kingdom of Light within. Why is this? To hear the still, small voice of God we must turn off the noise outside and then begin the process of turning down the noise inside.
In a piece ascribed to St. Symeon the New Theologian the writer speaks about the practice of looking within and observing the swirling chaos in our minds with patience and love. And then, he writes that, after a time, as God wills, a “great space” will open up inside. We will then have discovered the image of God and his kingdom in the midst of “our own silence.” Pure prayer rises from that place of stillness within. From there the uncreated light of God grows and spreads throughout the world.
In the same spirit Olivier Clement compares the soul to a mountain lake. When it is agitated by the storms of life, the waters become cloudy and opaque. When we allow the incessant chaos of thoughts and emotions to settle, the lake becomes clear and then the face of God appears on the surface of the still waters of the soul. I think there is no more eloquent description of the process of the Orthodox life of prayer than this.
And, finally, what is "the language of heaven" of which Eckhart speaks? Our answer comes from St. Isaac of Syria who tells us that the language of heaven is silence. As with any language, we learn it by practice - every day and with consistency.
We have but to supply the willingness to follow our Lord who withdrew from his disciples and the crowds often to pray alone just as he did for 40 days in the wilderness. I do not know for sure, but I imagine that much of that time was spent in silence. The greater the interior work, the greater the fruit and there is no greater work than his.