I have not felt or heard God in several years. On top of this, I have absolutely no clue what God is doing with me. Prayer (the former joy of my life) has been — for just as long — mostly dull, numb and, sometimes, even painful. Words that once sagged with meaning, carrying my thoughts up to God, now seem like nothing more than dried ink on a fragile page, unable to bear the weight of even the smallest need, let alone the silence. I feel no comfort nor reassurance, for the “still small voice” is gone. Prayer feels useless, mostly. My once-verdant soul has become a vast, fallow Hoosier cornfield on a freezing winter’s night, where the peripatetic wind stings with every gust. As you probably already know, the silence of God is very confusing and it hurts.
I know what it is like to be in a spiritual dry-time. And, several years ago, when this first dawned on me, I expected it to blow-in and blow-out like any other. But, days turned into weeks, weeks into months and months into seasons — long, weary seasons without any discernible end in sight. A never-ending season-less season where the voice that I thought I once heard is forgotten in the silence or swallowed up by the questions. Am I a fool? Does God even exist anymore? Why do I keep praying? Wouldn’t it just be better, psychologically speaking, to just give up and become an atheist? After all, one can only live with cognitive dissonance for so long.
For me, the silence of God is like a piano trio performing under the hot lights of a stage, with hundreds of people peering in the darkness. The sweat pours from the brow of the pianist as the music calls for more difficult maneuvers, precise fingerings and crossed hands jumping all over the keyboard. The violinist’s heart races as a particularly intricate passage of runs tests the resolve of even the most courageous of players. The cellist saws away louder and louder, with the bow exerting so much pressure that it’s a surprise the string hasn’t broken. As they play their last victorious fortississimo note, the violinist gives the cut-off (and, truth be told, the cellist half wishes they were a rock band, so she could swing her cello over head and shatter it, right there on the stage, because they played so well, so passionately, so perfectly).
As the last note fades into silence, no one in the packed house claps. No one coughs. No one moves a muscle. There is no booing nor clapping — there is nothing. There is only the sweat, the bright lights and the darkness beyond. The violinist whispers, “Really?” as the pianist fidgets. They could handle contemptuous hissing or loud boos, but not total silence to their brilliant playing. They walk off the stage in shock. What did they do wrong? Their minds fill with doubt.
We sing of the silence of God in one of the most beloved of Christmas carols, “Away in the Manger”:
The cattle are lowing, the poor Baby wakes,
But little Lord Jesus no crying He makes
Now, yes, we can get into arguments about how this is ridiculous, and yes, the dear, sweet baby Jesus probably cried. Even if Our Lord did cry, how much communication is that? Could the shepherds discern the Beatitudes in his wails? Could Our Lady hear his teaching about the Kingdom in every cry? Of course not! For all intents and purposes, it is as if the baby was silent.
Remember, it was not the voice of the child that brought the shepherds to the manger, but angels. It was not the voice of the child that summoned the Magi from afar but a well-placed star. Everyone spoke at the Nativity but the one whose voice mattered the most; everybody sang but the one whose voice breaks the ceder-trees, divides the flames of fire and shakes the wilderness. Like an audience that neither claps nor shouts, the silence of God echoed through the manger.
I often wonder what the shepherds thought when they saw the Nativity before them? Before the oft-repeated wonderment was their a slight moment of disappointment or hesitation at the door? That this was it — this baby wrapped in swaddling clothes? This is what the angels sang of? This is what they left their flocks for? Did any of them stop and sigh before rushing in with double-knee genuflections before the silent voice of God? Or what of the Magi? They came all the way for this? I guess we’ll never know.
Several years after the Epiphany, TS Eliot puts these words into the mouth of the Magi:
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death?
Eliot goes onto describe how the Magi would never again be comfortable with their lives amid “the old dispensation” and they would long for their eventual deaths (much like “Ich Habe Genug”). Nothing would ever compare to the silent Christchild.
Birth and death are both found in the manager and they are found in the silence of God.
In the silence of God, these deaths are the most painful, for all of our malformed ideas about the Divine shrivel and die. Here in front of the silent baby, those voices we once mistook for Divine are swallowed up. We, too, perhaps, die in the silence of God, as our souls — long tightly-wound from sin — slowly unravel. Like our piano trio, we stand shocked at the silence as the sweat pours down our faces. Things are broken and dead here.
But, birth is here, too. In the silence of God, we find birth in those hidden things and the oft-ignored things. We find the birth in the silence of God through Godly and encouraging conversations, through nature, through music — through anything that “sheweth his handywork”. For playing a piece the best we can, without needing the appreciation of an audience. Without the silence, we might never see these little births taking place.
We should remember the words of Our Lord, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” (John 12:24) In the silence of God, midst all of this death, there is birth. This birth is often hidden from view, painful, quiet and often rude to our sensibilities.
So, we might limp to the manger, hesitate at the door, look at this birth and say, “Really, this is it? I’ve come all this way for this?”, disappointed that no one has applauded our star-charts or our ingenuity at having come this far to the silent manger. We might miss the Incarnation if we let our disappointment with the silence of God keep us from entering and worshiping Our Mute Savior.
But, all things must die and must be reborn. For all things must lead to the unutterable and impregnable silence of God: where wisdom and confusion are one; where darkness and light are the same; and where birth and death converge. For it is in the hurt, the death, the confusion and the silence that God does his best work, for that silent child in that quiet manger will be thrust into our hands. And, beholding him, we will whisper with the voice of the ages, Kyrie Eleison — for we have heard his silence and we have come to worship him.