Typology of Silence
The word “silence” possesses an extraordinary richness of meaning in the vocabulary of sacred. It is not only acoustic phenomenon, but also indicates a change of a mindset, a turning around and looking straight into our heart. One way to measure the full depth of that meaning, but also to safely stay in the limits of religious practice, is to contrast silence with a word. For example, the Judeo-Christian tradition declares the unity of word and world: creation is first and foremost a result of the divine speech. The Gospel of John starts with the famous sentence: “In the beginning was the word”.1 But to this assertion we could add that before thus described beginning there was the silence out which the word was formed and heard. A word is clearly distinguishable just on the background of the silence. Or, using another metaphor, the best way we can see written words is as a black text on the white paper. Here the surrounding whiteness of the paper could be understood as the all-encompassing silence of the cosmos, the birthplace of our world. In it, the transcendent, unoriginate and infinite God who is one with the silence, who is the silence, chooses to break it by speaking. In that context, the relationship between silence and a word is hierarchical. Being a background from which every word comes, something that precedes and also follows that word, an ultimate noiselessness, silence can be understood as more fundamental than discourse. It can exist independently of words. To evade limitations imposed by English language, this meaning of silence can be better illustrated by the Russian word tishina. It denotes the silence of a forest, a cave, a desert or a cosmos and carries with it the sense of the English word ‘stillness’. Since here there is only a silence, but no one to hear it, let us label this type of silence a silence of absence.
Observing from another, interpersonal angle, both silence and words as parts of a discourse could be considered equal. They exist thanks to each other. Words come after silence and silence comes after words. Here, same as words, silence is also capable of producing meaning. And although we consider words as our main vehicle of communication, it is true that there are cases when silence communicates more eloquently than words. The second meaning of silence as cessation of a speech is captured by another Russian word, namely molchanie. And molchanie could be also understood as continuation of a conversation, this time by means of silence. This type of silence, since it is part of conversation, could be labeled a silence of presence.
The interpersonal character of the latter case of silence allows for further distinctions. The rules of etiquette and decorum sometimes dictate us to remain silent and this can be labeled a silence of convention. Silence of presence may be also employed as pedagogical silence, when a teacher wants to transmit his message to his disciples non-verbally. Closely associated to this is a self-imposed ascetic silence, as a part of spiritual training inside an ascetic community. Finally, in some other cases specific to religious context, we come across a silence about the ultimate reality,when a follower through prayer or meditation is faced with an indescribable Absolute, be it God or the ultimate reality. Or in the words of Evagrius of Pontus:
Every proposition has as predicate, either genus or difference or species or property or accident or that which is composed of these. None of the things that have been said, however, can be taken with regard to the Holy Trinity. Let the unspeakable be worshiped in silence.2