On God's "Unrest" and Human Silence | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
“The restless heart,…echoing St. Augustine, is the heart that is ultimately satisfied with nothing less than God, and in this way becomes a loving heart. Our heart is restless for God and remains so, even if every effort is made today, by means of more effective anaesthetizing methods, to deliver people from this unrest. But not only are we restless for God; God’s heart is restless for us. God is waiting for us. He is looking for us. He knows no rest either, until he finds us. God’s heart is restless, and this is why he set out on the path towards us—to Bethlehem, to Calvary, from Jerusalem to Galilee and on to the very ends of the earth.”
— Pope Benedict XVI, Solemnity of the Epiphany, 2012 (L’Osservatore Romano, January 11, 2012)
“Silence is nothing merely negative; it is not the mere absence of speech. It is a positive, a complete world in itself. Silence has greatness simply because it is. It is, and that is its greatness, its pure existence.”
— Max Picard, The World of Silence, 1948.
“Silence is an integral element of communication; in its absence, words rich in content cannot exist. In silence, we are better able to listen to and understand ourselves; ideas come to birth and acquire depth; we understand with greater clarity what it is we want to say and what we expect from others; and we choose how to express ourselves. By remaining silent we allow the other person to speak, to express him or herself, and we avoid being tied simply to our own words and ideas without them being adequately tested.”
— Pope Benedict XVI, Message for 46th World Communications Day, May 20, 2012
We are used to the notion that God is in peace, at rest. If He were not, He would be lacking something necessary for the complete beatitude in which He exists. God did not create the world because He needed something that He was lacking to Him. Yet, the cosmos, though not necessary either from God’s side or the world’s side, was created for a purpose, as it were, a human purpose. Christian revelation is unique since it is based on the fact that God goes out of His Trinitarian life to “dwell amongst us.” The Incarnation implies that something needs to be accomplished in the world that only God can achieve or at least inspire.
In the creation of the free, intelligent being we call man, God put Himself at risk. This risk followed from the very nature and hence purpose of His creation. This purpose was to invite other free beings into His own inner Trinitarian life. Creation is for man, not man for creation. To bring this purpose about, God had, so to speak, to play fair. He could not make the world a deterministic place where what He wanted would automatically come to pass even in the free being. The meaning of the creation of a real, finite, free, and rational being was that the end of God’s plan had to be freely accepted on the side of the creature. And if initially it was not accepted, as it evidently was not, God would have to freely and intelligently respond, as it were, to man’s free choice.
This response is the origin of Benedict’s use of the notion that God has some “unrest” in His being. Our world is not just one in which we are looking for some answer to what we are, an answer to our own restlessness. This restlessness itself is put in us from the very beginning because we are created to—invited to—participate in this inner life of rest in the Godhead. Such response implies an active providence on the part of God. His constant reaction to human evil is to find what is good and bring forth from it something better, yet still bearing God’s respect for human freedom. This is what is known as the divine plan of human salvation.
Do we ever hear this divine “unrest” in our souls? In some sense, I suppose, we would call it grace. Grace is not merely justice. God’s mode of redemption, through the Cross—a way that none of us would have chosen—represents something beyond our expectations. But God’s way remains within the order of freedom, both human and divine. Something at risk is really going on among us. This is the more profound meaning of hell. Our acts are not ultimately indifferent. We are every day deciding what we are and what we shall be. We do this within the confines of our individual lives, whenever and wherever they play themselves out. We are given enough rope, as they say, to hang ourselves and more than enough to grasp the gift of salvation. This is the meaning of the relation of mercy and justice. Indeed, as St. Paul says, God’s grace is “sufficient” for us. We are not, any of us, left alone. But we are left free.
Following this Epiphany reflection on the “restlessness” of God, Benedict wrote a brief but powerful reflection on silence in connection to the upcoming World Day of Communication. A young man I know enthusiastically called it to my attention even before it appeared in L’Osservatore Romano. In it, the Holy Father shows himself to be aware of something we in the colleges and universities notice every day, namely, the lack of silence in students’ lives. With the internet and cell phones and the many various modifications, everyone can be busy all day or night, every day of the year, hearing and talking.
Watching the world of cell-devices today, one can easily get the impression not of freedom but a kind of slavery, an inability to depend on the human memory or experience. Some authority is always out there to modify, contradict, or affirm what anyone thinks he know. Few would deny the value of knowing “facts” and having them immediately at hand. And yet, the Pope is right. It is rather eerie to have answers before we have questions, to be prodded to needs we were pleasantly unaware of moments before.
Again, we do not much live in a world of silence. A moment of silence almost seems like an irresponsible use of time when we could be doing something useful. In a famous introductory passage to his work, On Duties, Cicero cites Marcus Tullius Scipio who once remarked he was “never less idle than when he had nothing to do, and never less lonely than when he was by himself.” The Christian addendum to these memorable words would be that, for us, we have seen the face of God. We are also taught that we can converse with Him. He is not an isolated or inert being. “When word and silence become mutually exclusive,” Benedict tells us, “communication breaks down, either because it gives rise to confusion or because, on the contrary, it creates an atmosphere of coldness; when they complement one another, however, communication acquires value and meaning.”
In today’s world of all news, all the time, reading the following sentence of the Pope is almost shocking: “Silence is an integral element of communication; in its absence, words rich in content cannot exist.” The word bears reality to us. Each existing thing deserves and invites pondering. We often allow ourselves only to see the surface of things, including one another.
“By remaining silent, we allow the other person to speak, to express him or herself, and we avoid being tied simply to our own words and ideas without them being adequately tested.” It is out of silence that the voice of others arrive to us and arise in us. But unless we ourselves have contemplated what is, have wondered and searched for what it is all about, we will not easily recognize what we hear. Our silence is not designed to lock us into ourselves but to free us to listen to what is not ourselves.
“Deeper reflection helps us to discern the links between events that at first sight seem unconnected, to make evaluations, to analyze messages; this makes it possible to share thoughtful and relevant opinions, giving rise to an authentic body of shared knowledge.” Aristotle taught that what the best friends have most in common is agreement on the highest things. Benedict points out that much of what married couples know of each other they learn in silence.
“Many people,” Benedict tells us, “find themselves confronted with ultimate questions of human existence: Why am I? What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope? It is important to affirm those who ask these questions, and to open up the possibility of a profound dialogue, by means of words and interchange, but also through the call of silent reflection, something that is often more eloquent than a hasty answer….” One wonders how many students pass through our colleges and universities without ever really wondering about these basic questions and what answers might be given, even in silence.
Indeed, how many people pass through life itself without asking them? The culture conspires to never answer them because it is itself closed off from the sources of silence and revelation in which these answers are heard. It denies an order of nature or human soul, a providence of God at work in history. Hence, there is nothing to look for or to hear. The culture wants the answer to be, “There are no answers. Therefore tolerate everything; deny truth to anything.” Yet, Benedict rightly adds: “Men and women cannot rest content with a superficial and unquestioning exchange of skeptical opinions and experiments of life.”
Benedict does wonder if there cannot be at least some “websites” that might help us to silence and meditation. He points out that even one verse of the Scripture can serve to ground us in the reality of the transcendent. But we come across this meaning only in silence, even if we read it or hear it first in public. Benedict recalls the beautiful homily that is heard on Holy Saturday about the whole world suddenly being in stillness, as if something is gone, as if something is awaited.
Benedict then turns to a theme that was all through his book, Jesus of Nazareth. “If God speaks to us even in silence, we in turn discover in silence the possibility of speaking with God and about God.” All reading of the Old and New Testaments, all scholarship points to the fact that Jesus was who He said He was. He was the Word who dwelt amongst us. "I and the Father are one." With this event, the world can never be the same, however much we might want it to be, because of this fact. “Silent contemplation immerses us in the source of that Love who directs us towards our neighbours so that we may feel their suffering and offer them the light of Christ…”
God’s “plan of salvation” is “being accomplished through our history by word and deed.” Everything conspires in our noisy world to prevent us from seeing such events working themselves in our lives and in in that of those we love. But that plan is what is happening. In silence we hear; in light we see. A world day of communication is nothing if what is communicated are not the deepest things of what we are.
We best see this depth in the silence that teaches us what the words, and the Word, mean to us and our kind.
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays (CUA, 2008). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things(Ignatius Press, 2007).
His most recent book, The Modern Age, is available from St. Augustine's Press. Read more of his essays on his website.