Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Silence in Life and Death

Yesterday, I began a class called "Grief, Loss, Death, and Dying" with David Augsburger. I can already tell it's going to be very beneficial. One of the things Dr. Augsburger did was read an excerpt from Thomas Merton's work No Man is an Island. It was one of the most profound things I've read in a while. I hope you'll take three minutes to slowly read through it and consider its implications.
Silence does not exist in our lives merely for its own sake. Silence is the mother of speech. A lifetime of silence is ordered to an ultimate declaration, which can be put into words, a declaration of all we have lived for.

Life is not to be regarded as an uninterrupted flow of words which is finally silenced by death. Its rhythm develops in silence, surfaces in moments of expression, returns to deeper silence, culminates in a final declaration, then ascends quietly into the silence of Heaven.

Those who do not know that there is another life after this one, resist the fruitful silence of their own being by continual noise. Even when their own tongues are still, their minds chatter without end and without meaning. Or they plunge themselves into the protective noise of machines, traffic or radios. When their own noise is momentarily exhausted, they rest in the noise of others.

How tragic it is that those who have nothing to express are continually expressing themselves, like nervous gunners, firing burst after burst of ammunition into the dark, where there is no enemy. The reason for their talk is: Death is the enemy who seems to confront them at every moment in the deep darkness and silence of their own being. So they keep shouting at death. They confound their lives with noise. They stun their won ears with meaningless words, never discovering that their hearts are rooted in a silence that is not death but life. They chatter themselves to death, fearing life as if it were death.

Our whole life should be a meditation of our last and most important decision: the choice between life and death.

We must all die. But the dispositions with which we face death make of our death a choice either of death or life.

If, during our life we have chosen life, then in death we will pass from death to life. Life is a spiritual thing and spiritual things are silent. If the spirit that kept the flame of physical life burning in our bodies took care to nourish itself with the oil that is found only in the silence of God's charity, then when the body dies, the spirit itself goes on burning the same oil, with its own flame. But if the spirit has burned all along with the base oils of passion or egoism or pride, then when death comes, the flame of the spirit goes out with the light of the body because there is no more oil in the lamp.

We must learn during our lifetime to trim our lamps and fill them with charity in silence, sometimes speaking and confessing the glory of God in order to increase our charity by increasing the charity of others, and teaching them also the ways of peace and of silence.

If, at the moment of our death, death comes to us as an unwelcome stranger, it will be because Christ also has been to us an unwelcome stranger. For when death comes, Christ comes also, bringing us the everlasting life which He has bought for us by His own death. Those who love true life, therefore, frequently think about their death. Their life is full of a silence that is an anticipated victory over death. Silence, indeed, makes death our servant and even our friend. Thoughts and prayers that grow up out of the silent thought of death are like trees growing where there is no water. Thy are strong thoughts, that overcome passion and desire. They turn the face of our soul, in constant desire, toward the face of Christ.

If I say that a whole lifetime of silence is ordered to a final utterance, I do not mean that we must all contrive to die with pious speeches on our lips. It is not necessary that our last words should have some special or dramatic significance worthy of being written down. Every good death, every death that hands us over from the uncertainties of this world to the unfailing peace and silence of the love of Christ is itself an utterance and a conclusion.

A silent death may speak with more eloquent peace that a death punctuated by vivid expressions. For the eloquence of death is the eloquence of human poverty coming face to face with the riches of divine mercy. The more we are aware that our poverty is supremely great, the greater will be the meaning of death."

Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island (1955), pgs. 260-264

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