The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme
Texts: Mark 1: 35-39; Luke 4: 1-13
January 22, 2017
Hymns to the Silence, or, A Few Words in Praise of Solitude
This won’t be the sermon you imagined this morning. It won’t be the call to arms you might wish for. This isn’t a summons to the barricades. Instead, I’ve borrowed my theme this morning from the incomparable Van Morrison, who released a meditative song by that title back in the early 90’s. But my true inspiration comes from Thomas Merton, a cosmopolitan intellectual who left New York City in the middle of the 20th century to become a Trappist monk, living for the remainder of his days in rural Kentucky. Merton knew something about silence, and about solitude, and I’d like to lead off my reflections this morning with a word of wisdom from Merton. It’s a counterintuitive word in a time such as this, but it’s the word we need.
Here’s Merton: “It is the solitary person who does humankind the inestimable favor of reminding it of its capacity for maturity, freedom, and peace.” Solitude is what gave Merton the presence of mind to compose some beautiful pieces of writing that continue to provide solace and counsel to those seeking wisdom. In that, he joins other such solitary figures who retreated from time to time in order to gain clarity and vision, those like Lincoln, those like Emerson or Thoreau, those like King, or Whitman, or Emily Dickinson. Those were all figures of extraordinary vision, but that vision was honed only through long hours of solitude, of contemplation, and for some, like Merton, of prayer and meditation. At the start of a new American era, at the beginning of yet another year, during a time that shall demand much from us, what I have to commend to you, above all else, is the practice of solitude. What I have to commend to you is a hymn to the silence.
More than a few of you will no doubt think that I’ve lost my mind, or my nerve. More than a few of you will think that a hymn to the silence is exactly what we don’t need in this new era of so called American carnage. What we need is to bring the noise, to raise our voices, to stir up a fuss, to raise some hell. What we need is solidarity, not solitude, community, not isolation, networking, not withdrawal. To all of that I say…yes. To all of that, I say…absolutely. It is time to raise hell and it is time to organize. But I also believe strongly that we could use a hymn to the silence, lest we lose the capacities that Merton names, for maturity, freedom, and peace. And so I beg your patience this morning as I compose my little hymn.
Before proceeding any further, allow me a few qualifications about what I mean by solitude and silence, and what I don’t. I’ll start at the most personal level. The first thing to say is that there’s a difference between solitude and loneliness. Loneliness is something that can often be felt in the company of others. It’s not an accident that many people report feeling most lonely at parties, or other such gatherings. Loneliness is an affliction of the soul, being unable to connect with others in a meaningful way. Sometimes that comes about because of inner struggles, dealing with insecurities or old wounds. Sometimes it comes about as a result of social policy or spatial arrangements. But loneliness, we must realize, is not to be confused with solitude. Loneliness is the absence of communion with the world. Solitude has to do with the deepening of communion with the world, which includes a deepening communion with other people. In that, it’s a gift offered to extroverts and introverts alike, for while solitude may come more naturally to those who are introverted, it helps lend a quality of substance and care to the interactions of those more sociable by nature. That’s the first thing to say.
The second is this: solitude should never be mistaken for withdrawal. It is, I suppose, a kind of temporary removal of oneself from the noise and chatter of the world, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for disengagement, or retreat, or quiescence. It is, in fact, an intensification of our immersion in the world. I think here of the monastics. When they turn toward a life of contemplation, they do so in order to deepen their engagement with the world. That was certainly true of Thomas Merton, and it’s been true of some of the best practitioners of the monastic form of life throughout the centuries. One of the most vivid conversations I’ve ever had was with a monk who exhibited a contagious exuberance about the world – for food, for literature, for music, for people. His questions, and his replies to mine, were all penetrating and filled with surprises I couldn’t have imagined. His solitude was an act of preparation for engaging with those around him in a spirit of maturity, freedom, and peace. I’m not recommending a monastic life to any of you, not necessarily. But I am arguing that solitude is not about withdrawal. Rather, it’s about enhancing our capacity to pay attention, and to engage meaningfully and fully in the life of the world.
Consider Jesus. It’s no accident that the beginning of his ministry begins in solitude. There were urgent and pressing matters to attend to, matters of life and death, but Jesus begins his work in solitude. In Mark, we find the story about Jesus getting up early in the morning and slipping off by himself for a time, long enough that his disciples begin to wonder where he is. It’s a pause, a caesura, a respite in an otherwise overfull existence. Immediately upon being discovered, Jesus is submerged again in the life of the people, healing the sick, casting out demons, and building his movement. The inclusion of that brief detail in Mark’s story helps us understand the vital necessity for all of us to dwell in solitude for a time, as a way of equipping us for the work we’re given to do. Even Jesus composed a hymn to the silence.
But it’s the story in Luke’s Gospel that I like best. We’re told that after his baptism, Jesus goes to the wilderness, where he spends 40 days in solitude, fasting and praying. The importance of the story isn’t simply the fact of solitude. Rather, it’s what happens to Jesus as he devotes himself to that solitude. You heard the story, of course, and so you know. He’s alone in the desert, though not fully, not quite, for the devil pays him a visit. It’s commonplace in biblical stories to personify the devil as a means of dramatizing the confrontations and conflicts that can occur within the human heart at vulnerable moments. Even as solitude conveys the maturity, freedom, and peace that Thomas Merton wrote about, Luke’s story suggests that those qualities develop in the crucible of conflict with devils and demons arising in the depths of the human spirit.
I’m reminded of an account I once read about ultramarathoners, running distances of 100 miles or more at a time. Many of them do well for 25 or even 50 miles. But in the latter portion of the race, as their physical and mental reserves are depleted, the demons are unleashed from the depths of the unconscious – unresolved childhood traumas, or hidden shame, or guilt, or sadness, or helplessness conspire to make the runner quit. The best ultrarunners know that in order to make it to the finish, they must confront the devils, speak to them, befriend them even, in order to make them less powerful. They’ve learned, in other words, what those like Thomas Merton and other solitary individuals have gone into the woods or into the monastery to learn: that hymns to the silence often serve as occasions for contending with the devils and demons of the human spirit.
It’s no different for Jesus in the wilderness. The devil, his devil, tempts him with bread, with political power, and with religious authority. There’s particular significance behind each of those temptations, but for the time being, I’m more interested in the fact that they happen at all within the narrative of Jesus’s ministry. And I’m fascinated by what might have occurred within Jesus had he not undergone that long period of solitude, had he not communed with devils, had he not sung his hymns to the silence. Without that inner contest in the wilderness, would he have become a third rate purveyor of spectacle, as the devil urges? Would he have become a common tyrant, an autocrat thirsty to control those around him with his pronouncements? Would he have become a religious demagogue, manipulating the symbols and prestige of religion in order to stupefy those around him? The odds are more than fair. Thankfully, none of those possibilities came to pass, precisely because Jesus went to the wilderness, spent his time in solitude, and confronted the devil that he was given to struggle with. For his sake and for ours, we can be grateful that he sang his hymn to the silence prior to beginning his public ministry, a time during which he wrestled with his demons.
Let’s come closer to the present. One of the articles that I most enjoyed reading this past year was about President Obama’s hymns to the silence. It concerned his habit of retreating to his office after dinner, where he spent long hours alone – sometimes reading briefs or working on speeches, sometimes watching sports with the sound turned down, sometimes reading letters written by ordinary Americans, and often, often, reading books. This past week I read another article about the President’s reading habits, and I found myself admiring the way he used those solitary hours to commune with great minds of the past, like Lincoln’s or Gandhi’s, and also those of the present, like Colson Whitehead, and Elizabeth Kolbert, and Marilynne Robinson. What he said was that fiction especially helped him to imagine the lives of other people and what they might be going through. When he wanted to connect with rural Americans in Iowa, for example, he turned to Marilynne Robinson in order to help open up the emotional lives of those like his grandparents. Thank God for the power of fiction.
Now, you may say what you like about his politics. You may quibble about this decision or that. I may even join you. But now is the time to praise our now former President’s habit of mind, born from the discipline of solitude. It was, evidently, in those long evening hours that Barack Obama discovered his voice. It was in those long solitary hours that he listened to the profound wisdom of the past. It was in those stretches of solitude that he found the words he needed in order to respond to painful or traumatic events, like those in Charleston, or in Newtown. And, this needs to be said too, it was in those moments of solitude that he found it within himself to practice the wisdom of that benediction I use every week: returning no one evil for evil. My hunch is that his solitude allowed him to confront his devils in private before he did so in public. I believe that it was solitude that helped our President to discover that deep reserve of grace under tremendous pressure from the left and from the right alike. Say what you may about this or that policy, this or that decision. I believe that much of the American public has diminished itself by failing to recognize the dignity and bearing the President exuded, born, in part at least, from those long hours of solitude.
I wish every person in leadership long periods of solitude, including our new President. I hope he avails himself of that discipline. But I hope each of us does as well. Whether it’s teachers or stay at home parents, whether physicians, home health aids, or lawyers, whether it’s social workers or those bagging groceries, I wish every single one of us would be enabled to maintain a discipline of solitude, for at least a small portion of the day. That’s because each of us possesses capacities for leadership, if only in the disposition we cultivate, and thereafter spread. But so many things compete for our attention that it becomes difficult to hear and absorb that within ourselves, and within the world, that might provide wisdom. One of our now departed members was fond of saying that one ought never to trust a person whose house contained no books. I wonder if the same could be said for those incapable of solitude. I tend to think we would all do well to learn to sing a hymn to the silence.
Yesterday, a good many of us traveled to New York City to take part in a march meant to demonstrate solidarity around things like women’s rights, as well as those of Muslims, immigrants, people of color, gay, lesbian, transgender, and anyone else who finds themselves vulnerable within the new political landscape of America. Despite the occasion, there was joy in the streets. There was exuberant humor, and energy, and I couldn’t have been more proud to have been there with some of you. But I also came away wondering if one of the greatest and most urgent needs of the moment is the necessity of preserving solitude. I wondered if the greatest virtue we might possess at the moment is the capacity to be alone, not in loneliness, but in solitude, in order to truly hear from ourselves. I wonder if the most important act required of us now, in addition to everything else that will call for our attention, is to maintain a discipline of solitude, whether in reading, or writing, or meditating, or praying – in order to enhance our capacities for attention. Amidst the circus spectacle to which we have been subjected, I wonder if one of the most important acts of resistance shall be to compose our own hymns to the silence. If Thomas Merton is to be trusted, and there are few I would trust more fully, it’s only from within that solitude that maturity, freedom, and peace shall be discovered. And so I vowed to myself that amidst all the challenges that confront us, I shall compose my own hymns to the silence here and there – in the early morning hours when I run, in the evening hours when I read, in the stretches of quiet reserved for writing. I shall, as best I can, sing a hymn to the silence, even as I prepare for movement.
I’ll conclude with an image that demonstrates the strength born of solitude better than any I know. It’s an image born from Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam. The image I have in mind is a figure in motion, spinning, turning, swirling, but always upon a steady and fixed inner axis. My image is the whirling dervish. Several years ago, travelers on our Tree of Life journey were privileged to witness a dervish ceremony when we visited an active Sufi community on the outskirts of Istanbul. After a short series of meditations, musicians began playing instruments that I didn’t recognize, and the men and women participating in the dervish ceremony arrayed themselves in a large open space. And they began to spin in place, their long shirts flaring beneath them as the air caught the material up around them. They were gorgeous in their motion, instances of incredible beauty, turning and turning and turning and turning. None of them faltered. Not one of them grew dizzy. Not one of them stumbled or fell. Periodically, the music would cease, and the dervishes would cease turning without a trace of vertigo, without a hint of nausea. They would process a little, and as the music started again, they would begin to spin once more, though now in a new position on the floor. It was, I came to realize, a representation of the inner life of the spirit, and of the human relationship to the world. The dancers spun and spun and spun, but they were enabled to do so because they were attuned to a still point deep within, a still point around which they moved. And it was that inner focus that kept them oriented and balanced. As each of them spun, a figure dressed in red, representing a tempter, a kind of devil, circulated among them, whispering in each of their ears, attempting to break their concentration. None were broken. Another figure seemed to preside over it all, and appeared to orchestrate the movements, moving in and out of the dervishes, though never interrupting them. This was the spirit of God, moving among them, yes, but also serving as the axis around which they spun. I found the ceremony stunningly gorgeous, and I’ve thought about those dervishes ever since. They represent the kind of inner calm, and inner focus, that I believe people of faith need to be cultivating right now. Amidst their turning, they cultivated their own hymn to the silence, one that made them impervious to the seductions of the tempter, the seductions of the age.
And so it is with us. The world spins. We spin. God, but are we spinning right now. Will we lose our balance? Shall vertigo claim us? Or shall we be enabled to discover the maturity, freedom, and peace that Thomas Merton wrote about? With Merton, I believe that it is in solitude that we will discover that inner axis upon which we turn, the one that allows us to spin without stumbling, without falling. I believe that it will be within a deep inner solitude that we shall be enabled to endure the whispers of those who would distract us, and emerge again to raise some hell, and to raise our voices as well. It will be a hymn to the silence that shall enable us to discover our voices as we turn, turn, turn.
 As quoted in William Sloane Coffin’s sermon “Tempted of the Devil,” from Feb. 26, 1978. Found in The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin: The Riverside Years, Vol. 1, (Louisville: WJK Press, 2008), pg. 56.
 An insight borrowed from Marilynne Robinson in her article “A Proof, A Test, An Instruction,” published in The Nation, December 5, 2016.