Silence, Solitude, and Self-Denial
“At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. . . . It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven.” – Thomas Merton
Not too long ago there was a series of posts written by various members of the church I'd been attending which concerned the spiritual practice of silence and solitude. I followed the series with interest, enjoyed the thoughtful contributions. and I wanted to add my own unofficial addition to that series by beginning with the idea of ‘self-denial’, which is perhaps an odd place to begin a reflection on silence and solitude. Self-denial is, of course, a familiar enough practice for many, and the phrase brings to my mind those periodic and various collections, offerings, or other occasions where one is compelled to divest oneself of resources for the glory of God and the betterment of men. As such, it is a practice which insists on a spirit of sacrificiality. While such giving is undoubtedly undertaken with noble intention and aim – and certainly much good may result from it – sacrifice persists as a form of giving that operates squarely within an economy of exchange. That is, something is given up with the (often disavowed) expectation there will be, whether now or at some point in the future, a return received on the expenditure, effacing the entirely selfless quality of the gift that is often presumed. Sacrifice is an ancient, perhaps even the first religious motif, and it is one of the most persistent. Within Christianity it often expressed as the sacrificing of desires, objects, or bodies (desiring-bodies, objectified-bodies, bodies-in-time, etc.), in favor of more spiritual goods. But, what if self-denial was understood not only in sacrificial terms, but taken at its most radical face-value as a denial of the self, opening ourselves to the terrifying possibility that what we might presume to call the self, may not in fact exist; and that what appears to us as a concrete and undeniable reality is at bottom, illusory? What if we were to place our notion of the self upon the sacrificial altar, offering our-selves as a living sacrifice? Admittedly, this all sounds quite strange, and yet this strange notion appears central to Merton’s explication of that most profound quality of the self he describes in the above passage as a “point of nothingness”, a point he goes on to associate with the “pure glory of God in us”. We are left to wonder: what exactly is this nothingness “untouched by sin and illusion”, this “point of pure truth”? And, perhaps a more pertinent, though no less paradoxical question: how might we come to experience such glory, which is at once a nothingness? Our rational post-enlightenment minds might recoil from such a question. After all, how can we do something with nothing?
Turning now toward Silence and Solitude, we might wonder momentarily about the pairing. Taken independently, these name two distinct, albeit related practices by which we might deepen and develop our spiritual lives. Indeed, we may even faintly suspect one as always-already implicated to some extent in the other. A cursory examination, however, quickly reveals how solitude cannot secure silence, nor does silence necessitate solitude. (I’ll leave it to the reader to think of examples.) Operating by way of subtraction (that is, by removing from our consciousness speech, desire, and other various stimuli), these disciplines, when brought together may effect a focused and sustained form of attention in which one becomes increasingly aware of an apparent abscess (or absence) within the horizon of experience, one which coincides with an overabundant sense of fullness and plenitude. “Emptiness is the pregnant void out of which all creation springs”, says Wayne Muller echoing the peculiarity of Merton’s mystical language. Silence and Solitude thus carve out a space in experience, creating for us this void, an emptiness which Merton seems to be suggesting opens the possibility for a fullness which exceeds rational explanation. But, this braiding together of emptiness and fullness may lead us to a puzzling question as to the coimiplication of presence and absence: where does one begin and the other end? This paradox is what Christian contemplatives refer to as a ‘coincidentia oppositorum’, or coincidence-of-opposites wherein the old self passes away, making room for a new consciousness aware of the inseparability of God from man, and the incompleteness of reason and knowledge. That said, we need not overly concern ourselves with questions of ontology here, but rather we might proclaim — through, a humble surrender to our limits on one hand, and a radical self-denial on the other, where our selves are displaced through a journey of negation; the dispossession of encrusted notions of identity, hopes, fears, concerns for what others think of us, the abandonment of our cherished categories of knowledge, etc. – that it is here, in silence and solitude, in this nothingness that the eternal presence of God appears before us as a “pure diamond”; an infinite value apprehended yet wholly unfathomed.