August 30, 2017

Silence of Riches versus Silence of Poverty

By Alice von Hildebrand *
Credit: Pexels
Credit: Pexels

My Dear Friend:

I am sure you have sometimes found yourself sitting next to an unknown person at a dinner party; you try to engage in a conversation and the person’s response is monosyllabic. You then turn to another topic, and the response you get is a grunt. You try your luck a third time with an identical result. You then come to the inevitable conclusion that you have nothing to say to your dinner partner; there seems to be no common ground between the two of you; you and your companion seem to be living in two different planets.

There ensues an unpleasant silence: let us call it the “silence of poverty.” It is a dreadful experience for the plain reason that there is a painful contrast between the physical proximity of two people, and their spiritual remoteness. Being next to this person, you feel hopelessly alone, and to feel “alone” with another person next to you, is true lonesomeness indeed. As a matter of fact, in such cases, we all long for being physically alone, so that we can breathe freely – something impossible when a human body, which does not seem to be animated by a soul, is in our immediate proximity.

At the antipodes of this fearful emptiness, we find another type of silence (and how I wish that you have or will soon experience it): the silence of plenitude, or the silence of riches. Two persons who love each other can be so deeply moved by the depth of their reciprocal feelings that no word could adequately express the sublimity of their common experience. In such cases, they will remain silent because words would be dumb; they prove then to be so inadequate, so pale compared to the wealth of emotions that overwhelm the two lovers’ hearts that silence alone is called for. But this silence is so eloquent that this mysterious interchange produces a music whose echo seems to be reaching the stars. St. Augustine has expressed this strikingly: “…words cannot communicate the song of the heart.” (Commentary on the Psalms, Second Discourse, Psalm 32; Newman Press, p. 112).

Most of the greatest and deepest human experiences are expressed in and by silence: whether it is adoration (the silent prayer par excellence), or veneration, or the loving contemplation of another person, or of beauty: in all these cases, the subject says nothing; every sound would disturb the sublime music which is resounding in his soul. It was not by accident that in the celebration of a tridentate mass, the words of consecration were uttered silently: this pointed to the greatness of the mystery that was taking place.

In the first case we have alluded to, words cannot be used as vehicles of thoughts and feelings, because being given the disposition of the other, the attempt to communicate fails.

In the second case, the cascade of thoughts and emotions is so overwhelming that words prove to be a very poor vehicle of communication. They are then replaced by a more eloquent one: silence.

It is related that when St. Louis of France met St. Bonaventure, they never said a word, but looked deeply in each other’s eyes and in this look; they said everything they wanted to say. The human eye – the mirror of the soul as Plato calls it – can speak volumes, and no sound is uttered.

We are back to our antipodes! Silence can therefore indicate that there is an abyss separating two human beings; they find themselves in a spiritual desert. It can also indicate that their closeness is such that words become unnecessary: for human sounds would detract from the depth of their mutual love which has the savor of eternity. Truly the topic we are discussing is inexhaustible!

Alice von Hildebrand is a lecturer and an author, whose works include: The Privilege of Being a Woman (2002) and The Soul of a Lion: The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand (2000), a biography of her late husband. She was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory by Pope Francis in 2013.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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