Sitting with Silence
Gordon Hempton is of the opinion that you can count on one hand the places in the United States where you can sit for twenty minutes without hearing a generator, a plane, or some other mechanized sound. (His estimation is all the more dreary for Europe.) As an audio ecologist, Hempton has traveled the world for more than twenty-five years searching for silence, measuring the decibels in hundreds of places, and recording the sharp decline of the sounds of nature. "I don't want the absence of sound," he tells one interviewer of his search. "I want the absence of noise." Adding, "Listening is worship."(1)
For the Christian church, Holy Week begins a time of silence, a week of sitting in the dark with the jarring events from the triumphal entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem to the march of Christ to the grave. Holy Week moves the world through the shouts of Palm Sunday to the empty space of Holy Saturday. Though the Christian story clearly and loudly ends on the note of triumph and resurrection, there is a great silence in between, a great darkness the church curiously believes it is necessary to sit with.
Odilon Redon, Christ in Silence, charcoal on paper, 1897.
Writing of Holy Saturday, the day most marked with this silence, theology professor Alan Lewis says of the Christian story: "Ironically, the center of the drama itself is an empty space. All the action and emotion, it seems, belong to two days only: despair and joy, dark and light, defeat and victory, the end and the beginning, evenly distributed in vivid contrast between what humanity did to Jesus on the first day and what God did for him on the third... [Yet] between the crucifying and the raising there is interposed a brief, inert void: a nonevent surely—only a time of waiting in which nothing of significance occurs and of which there is little to be said. It is rare to hear a sermon about Easter Saturday; for much of Christian history the day has found no place in liturgy and worship it could call its own."(2)
Perhaps this is because the world is generally uncomfortable with silence, uncomforted by waiting. And who can understand a messiah who stands at the crossroads of an identity as a deliverer, a political hero who could fight with force for our salvation and that of a servant, a messiah who chooses intentional suffering, who chooses to walk us through darkness on the way to redemption. If Holy Week is filled with events that silence all in disbelief, Holy Saturday levels us with the silence and emptiness that is the end of God.
Yet Holy Week attempts to prepare the world precisely for this silence. For certainly, here, after the end of God on Easter Saturday, we find not only the absence of sound, the absence of noise, but a vision of the world's end—tipping the scales to despair and doubt, giving into suspicions that history is meaningless, evil in control, and our futures perilous. Such silence is one in which some can only manage a redirected cry for "Hosanna," a reiterating of the lighthearted cheers of Palm Sunday, a desperate prayer for a Messiah to save us now, to deliver us from this evil and emptiness, from our suspicions and fear.
Such is indeed the cry of the Christian.
Professor and psychologist James Loder tells of the case of Willa, a young adult who was hospitalized and classified as schizophrenic of an undifferentiated type. She was born into a home where she was unwanted and abused. She was a bright child, but everyone took advantage of her such that she grew up with no sense of boundary or healthy relationships. Tragically, the very individuals who pledged to help her also became stories of abuse in her life. She was in the second year of graduate school when she finally broke down and could not finish her examinations.
In the hospital, she sat for hours rocking her doll and staring into space. The head nurse on the floor told Dr. Loder that they expected Willa would never leave the hospital. One day, however, while she was sitting in her chair, someone came up behind her, put arms around her and said, "The silence is not empty; there is purpose for your life." She turned around, but there was no one there. The power of that experience began to build sanity, and to distinguish illusion from reality. While no one thought she would ever leave the hospital, she was released after three weeks. She was eventually baptized and returned to the profession for which she was training. Commenting on this encounter with God in the silence when all else seems lost, Loder writes: "The intimacy of the Spirit runs deeper than family violence and neglect, and has immense restorative power."(3) The intimacy of God—even unto death—runs deeper than silence.
This is the story Holy Week sets before the world this week. There is much to listen for in between the crucifying and the raising. There is always much silence and darkness to sit with. But we are amiss to call it empty.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Diane Daniel, "Listening is worship," Ode Magazine, July 2008.
(2) Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 1.
(3) Story as told by James Loder, The Logic of the Spirit (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 264-265.