The Quiet Ascent: Finding Noetic Meaning in Dynamic Silences
What cannot be said will be wept. – Sappho of Lesvos
This is one of those quotes that brings to mind all sorts of daily scenarios in interpersonal relationships. The give-and-take of any conversation which results in an uncertainty: does the other feel the same, does he or she relate to what I am saying, does he or she enjoy our exchange? Sometimes the doubt or uncertainty can be subtle; other times it can be profound. Each one of us has encountered these situations in our daily interactions with those closest to us, those known to us but not on an intimate level, and then, of course, the many strangers. A lingering glance unacknowledged. A smile left unreturned. A revealing word of deeper meaning or intent left unanswered. A word of concern left without reply.
As we try to process on a daily basis our interactions with other people – some of which give us joy, some of which give us anxiety, some of which simply give us general stress – we often fail to think of all of the processing that we don’t manage to do during the day. Even the most extroverted person, as I am, can only process so much when interacting with so many different people in a given twenty-four hours. Sometimes it is the most meaningful encounters we have in a day that allow us to experience brief periods of genuine joy, the kind that makes the rest of the day’s stresses vanish into the manageability of an adjusted perspective. Sometimes these encounters allow us to experience – later on, once the bustle of the day has died down – the quiet joy of silent contemplation, of constructive silence.
This positive, organic, naturally occurring reflection of one soul on the depth and immensity of what another person has said can awaken in the soul the quiet, higher spiritual joy that is the very essence of what gives any meaningful life solid purpose, and which is at the heart of the Christian faith in particular. These ‘little joys’ are, for we who are called to be ‘little Christs’, glimpses into the deeper mystagogical and symbolic reality of living the Faith – when we experience spiritual joy from our conversations with other human beings, whether they are our spouse, family, friend, or stranger, we are drawn inexplicably, unconsciously into the deeper joy of Christ who made us all.
Paradoxically, sometimes on a given day when we get so caught up in the minutia of simply going about the day’s business – our various responsibilities, tasks, duties, chores, deadlines, et cetera – we do not fully process what we either wished we had said or wish that someone had said to us. For any one of us who is noetically aware, for anyone who is spiritually alive and awakened to the use of the noetic faculties (the “eye of the heart” or the “heart of the soul”) vibrant within himself or herself, it is often in the still, quiet hours of the late night or even carrying over into the pre-dawn when all the world around us is asleep that we do begin to process what we could not earlier.
Often one of the most profound ways a human being does process the depth of the interactions he or she had earlier is through the quiet contemplation that results in the shedding of tears. I could speak to this on a scientific level – what it means for the brain, what is taking place in the moment when someone is crying, there are different kinds of tears and so many different reasons for weeping, of joy, of anxiety, of feeling overwhelmed by an emotional depth and breadth of a certain situation, and these can all cause tears to flow – but relating the original quote, the quote implies a person’s regret for not saying something that they felt deep down, or someone else not saying something that the person wished they had said.
It is often in these blessed moments when we are most truly alone, engaging in a healthy period of solitude, rather than loneliness (one can be alone and not be lonely, and one can be with other people yet feel lonely or detached) that the whole person – the body, soul, and spirit – naturally recharges. One of the most basic ways that anyone who is noetically aware is going to recharge is by contemplative silence. If we are frustrated or disappointed or anxious, or feeling regret about words left unsaid in a conversation we had, if we are upset for not saying something that we wish we had said, we all know what this can mean and how it plagues us. Reflecting on whether or not we said the right thing, whether or not we said the right thing correctly, whether or not we should have said something that we did not say – we come to see that words left unspoken, consigned to the inner heart of the soul, unexpressed publicly but still deeply there, will be wept.
I think this applies to words that come from the deeper nature within us, the deeper part of each person, that reflects man’s higher, divine attributes (In other words, that which animates us at the core of our being). If the words we say and use in a given conversion reflect that higher, divine love and consideration, we will experience profound spiritual joy in that conversation. If, however, we fear that we did not communicate what we wished to say in keeping with these higher attributes, or if we were hoping for the other to say something he or she did not, this often gives us cause to weep. If we fail to say something of the higher impulse within us, something that recognizes and speaks directly to the noble aspects of the other’s soul, that is something we will naturally regret. When we process that regret, and the very depth of the emotions and sentiments regarding the lack of saying that, we do so most naturally through the shedding of tears.
From an Orthodox perspective – St Silouan wrote about this quite frequently, and that is one of the primary reasons I was inspired to take him for my patron – it is a profound virtue and sign of noetic life and kenosis to weep for all of the world, as well as our own sins. Not to do so deliberately or ostentatiously, but simply to do so organically when moved and prompted by the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth. To reflect on our own sins, whatever they might be on a given day, and to reflect on the sins present in and afflicting the greater world – all of the ways people harm and fail each other, all of the ways people remain disconnected or disinterested in others’ sufferings – is entirely natural. To reflect on these things, I think, is a core part of being truly human in the highest sense of what that word actually means. To be truly human is not to sin and excuse the sin out of the idea that “we’re only human”, but to aspire to live, manifest, and reach toward the Eternal Good, to the divine love united to and contained and manifested in Christ, while ever recognizing our own fallibility and imperfections. To be human is to constantly strive, despite repeated failings, to ascend on the ladder, as we say, toward God, toward theosis – and to seek to raise oneself toward the heavenly in all things, in all ways, in synergy or cooperation with the Holy Spirit. As Lewis said, we are not truly divine sons of God unless we realize our God-given humanity, which raises us above the angelic ranks, and we are not truly human unless we realize that we are actually made, we exist, to become ever more divine like unto God Himself.
Taking this into account, words let unspoken, words left unsaid, that we wish we had said in an ‘angelic conversation’ which raises us and the other toward God together, are naturally a source of regret and, even, some lamentation. We only live as sojourners on this earth for such a time, and so amidst having, on a certain day, a certain number of routine interactions with the medley of people in our lives, to regret not saying something of great import in one of the exceptional interactions of the day is quite normal. We process that loss, that sense of a missed opportunity, often with the flowing of tears.
One of the greatest lies of secular modernity – an emotional and spiritual, and even psychological aspect of what the Russians call дегуманизация, dehumanizatsiya) – is the idea that somehow it is either weak or less ‘mature’ or ‘stable’ to weep in situations when the heart naturally laments. Obviously the death of a loved one is a time in which all human societies say it is acceptable to weep, but in cases of great joy as well, we have cause for weeping different tears; those of rejoicing. The quote refers more to tears of sadness and of an overflow of emotion, of pricks to the conscience or noetic stirrings. Truly, it is a man who is most animated by love for God who weeps in certain situations, not out of a misplaced passive sentimentality, but an active love for the world. Men and women naturally experience a greater animation, a greater earnestness, in talking with those who they esteem and love; thus, to regret not saying something is a natural response after such a discussion.
It is natural for man to experience wonder – all the awe-inspiring thoughts we have in certain conversations as we come to connect deeply with the other and know him or her better, and, of course, wonder and awe at the divine majesty which we encounter in the Church’s holy services and in the stunning beauty of the natural world. Man is made to delight in God’s creation, and above all to delight in His fellow-man as icons of the love and life that exists between the Persons of the Holy Trinity. The Lord made man for each other, and so by, to delight in each other and thereby draw closer to delight, corporately, in Him. In drawing closer to another, we draw closer to God insofar as our relationship with this person is a godly one. When we encounter God, touched by His grace directly in a noetically palpable way, or we are touched by the grace of another person – the grace of God flowing through that person – these experiences are also unspoken moments that are very much real and alive in our souls. They speak wordlessly to the soul; sometimes words deliberately left unspoken, words carefully omitted, give us greater cause for rejoicing, or for grief, than those explicitly stated.
Words unspoken yet understood nonetheless through silence may sound like thunder or a lion’s roar – they may give us cause for rejoicing, or weeping. An implied but delicately unexpressed spiritual affection of the highest order (philia – ‘affection’ being a rather pale, deflated translation, a cheapening of that concept) becomes a very real attraction to the soul of the person, to the nobility which par la grace de Dieu resides in that soul and animates its very being. Encountering such a noble soul is something which can move any man or woman to tears; when a soul encounters another soul of such beauty, that moves it to glorify God and respond with tears of astonishment and radiant joy. How can we not be moved by our interactions and exchanges with a person who – in their intelligence, their wit, or their thoughtfulness or compassion, or any combination of these things – reminds us of the higher order of things to which all of our souls naturally aspire? That is a natural and entirely human thing; the noble, God-loving soul is dawn to a noble, God-loving soul. This dance of souls, of budding attraction between two persons, is a chaste foretaste of the delights of marriage; an unspoken promise of the drawing ever-nearer to God with another person. This dance beckons us to the divine, as it itself reflects, like a light reflecting off a mirror, the love of God and His providence for each person.
When we perceive in another soul these intellectual sparks, these long-nourished flames, of the highest inspiration, we are in an imperfect yet very real way touching the divine, aspiring toward He who is beyond all yet in all, He who creates all from nothing and entreats us to unite to Him. The human soul is, like our God, no autonomous solitary monad; rather, the soul is meant, like the Persons of the Trinity to each other, to live eternally in loving relationship; we are exhorted as human beings to live in relationship to those around us, drawing, ideally, ever closer in webs of work, friendship, motherhood or fatherhood, and marriage. Along with communing of the Body and Blood of our Lord Himself, the love between two souls, between two people, is the most intimate spark or bond of the encounter with God that we can hope to have in this earthly life. God reveals Himself to us above all else in the Eucharist, but beyond that, yet very much connected to it, in and through other human beings. We are made for each other; God made us to delight in each other on every level of human existence, from the more intimate levels (the most intimate ‘little kingdom’ of husband and wife, and of parents and children, and then, still very close but radiating outward, the bonds of a true, high friendship, and then, beyond that, our neighbors and colleagues) to, finally, the outer – the many strangers we meet who are all made in His image.
The challenge is, as we process on a daily basis our interactions with those of all different spheres and reaches – those who are closest to us, those who are at an intermediate level, and then those who are on the outer periphery of our lives – to respond to so many stimuli in a given moment as best we can. Because of this necessary multitasking, which itself can be overwhelming or sometimes dehumanizing, the centering prayers – especially the Jesus Prayer – offer us a tremendous consolation to center our lives, our thoughts, and put things in the proper perspective. These prayers go a tremendous way in allowing us to recover our equanimity and our sense of inner peace after a day of tremendous stimulation and likely stress.
I initially viewed the quote as a negative one, hinting primarily at feelings of regret, but now I see a positive element: sometimes, as St Isaac says, we cannot approach God, or His presence in another person, with adequate words truly appropriate to or measuring the situation. We are left in a state of sublime wonder and adoration; the highest feelings we can have toward God when married with the three loves in their highest forms. On a microcosmic level, but still profoundly important, when we have that kind of higher love for someone, or for multiple people to differing degrees, then we are truly – as Lewis said – realizing our true ‘spiritual inheritance’ and potential as Christians, as little Christs. It is on that note that I think, ultimately, we are to aspire on a daily basis to ideally speak the words we wish to speak to others, and to appreciate, in profound contemplative silence, the breadth, the majesty, and the beauty of the words spoken to us by another noble soul, and all those in our lives who matter.
Language is one of the greatest gifts that man has; it is directly a gift from God. Human speech cannot ever perfectly praise Him, and so in moments when our languages themselves fail to adequately do so, as magnificent as they are, we resort firstly to using language married to sacred song, to music in which the nous and the voice of the heart pray as one, and then, when even chanting and hymnody fails to fully capture that magnificence and wonder of the Lord, we are silent. We have recourse to silence not as a consolation for estrangement or loneliness, but as a silence of intimate communion. Whether this is communion with God, or with a beloved friend or other such esteemed person, or with a spouse, or children or parents, it is that intimate communion relative to each circumstance and each person in our life to which we are called to aspire. We are called simultaneously to ascend and descend; as St Isaac wrote, to raise our noetic consciousness to “the place where thoughts dry up, and stirrings vanish…where human nature becomes serene, and is transformed as it stands in the other world”, and to bring this same refuge, this same eternal placidity and majesty, to all that we do in this life and all we meet. As St Seraphim of Sarov so beautifully remarked, the foremost goal of our lives as Christians is to acquire the Holy Spirit, and, by doing so, aid in the salvation of those around us.
To the noetically aware, words unspoken carry a meaning all their own, never audibly expressed yet clarion in their meaning. Words unspoken turning to weeping is a natural, emotive impulse in the human person, a reflection of the activity of the soul which wants to connect in the deepest possible way with every other person, and, as life goes on, particularly with those closest to it. We are, simply, to imitate the angels in our mortal conversations, as best we can, so as to have a better taste of the heavenly choirs which ceaselessly praise the King of kings. When we encounter a high soul, a noble soul, in a mortal body, whose soul cannot but rejoice, and weep either tears of joy for the growing bonds, or tears of woe for fear of any loss in the connection? In drawing closer to another, we draw closer to God, and any noble soul recognizes the nobility of another like it.