But then certain people came forward to debate with Stephen, . . . . They found they could not get the better of him because of his wisdom, and because it was the Spirit that prompted what he said.
Acts 6: 9-10
But when they hand you over, do not worry about how to speak or what to say; what you are to say will be given to you when the time comes; because it is not you who will be speaking; the Spirit of your Father will be speaking in you.
Matthew 10: 19-20
In his Maxims on Love (#21) St. John of the Cross writes: “The Father spoke one Word, which was His Son, and this Word He always speaks in eternal silence, and in silence must It be heard by the soul.” When God speaks, that word, which is love, is spoken in “eternal silence.” If we fail to hear that word, it must be because we are not participating in the silence in which it is spoken. Put another way, it is the depth of our silence that will determine our capacity to both hear the truth and speak the truth.
The day after celebrating the Birth of God’s Word among us, we remember the death of Stephen. We hear in the brief account of Stephen’s death in Acts of the power of his speech which comes from its truth. The truth he expresses is so strong and direct that it is inarguable. And finally, because there is no other way to “get the better of him,” he is killed. As Socrates and countless other martyrs to the truth before him, Stephen becomes the victim of the crowd’s fear of the truth. If the truth cannot be swayed or compromised, its bearer must be exterminated.
We live in a time where even mere reference to “the truth” seems quaint. This very morning the New York Times carries a story of how the term “fake news” is now being used to describe anything with which one does not agree. The chaos into which our public discourse and common life seems to be descending is taking us to a place where any significant sense of truth or falsehood seems to have become arbitrary and subjective. We are perhaps arriving at the inevitable outcome of a direction in which reality has become subject to our ideas and whims, rather than the other way around.
We are told by Luke, the author of Acts, that the truth of the words of Stephen are irrefutable because “it was the Spirit that prompted what he said.” This is the fulfillment of the promise of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew. “What you are to say will be given to you when the time comes; because it is not you who will be speaking; the Spirit of your Father will be speaking in you.” The Spirit of God that speaks in us is always speaking, says St. John of the Cross, “one Word,” which is God’s Son. When our speech is prompted by the Spirit, we are, thus, also speaking but one Word, that is we are expressing in our lives and in our words Jesus himself. Truth is not what we determine it to be, it is the truth of God’s ongoing creation of the world in the Word. We are truthful when we are participating in God’s creation by our acts and by our words. When we are not, when we are rather about a different project of our own making, then we are not in the truth.
Perhaps our great love of the feast of Christmas is a result, in large part, of the images of our memory, imagination, and anticipation. Recently in sharing some time with friends we spoke of our most memorable Christmases. Inevitably, the images that arose in us were those of moments of real joy which arose out of an experience of profound peace. The images of Christmas that most enduringly remain with us, both from the words of scripture and from the scriptures of our own lives, are images, memories, and anticipations of peace. As we remember moments of deep peace in our lives and imagine the peace of the birth of Jesus, we are drawn into a silence that is rare in our daily experience. We cannot know peace until we become silent enough to hear our own bodies and our own lives. For peace comes from hearing the Word that God speaks in silence, and, as St. John of the Cross says, it is only in silence that our soul can hear that Word.
Humanity’s uneasy relationship with truth is not new. The greatest truth tellers in human history have often, if not usually, been martyrs to the truth. To live in the silence where truth is spoken in and by the Spirit has always required the desire and the strength to “wake up” from all those aspects of human life and relationship that tend to enervate our awareness. Yet today, we find ourselves continually and unceasingly “entertained.” Our awareness is constantly being distracted by the omnipresent stimuli that surround us. If silence is the prerequisite for peace and for hearing and speaking the truth, what does that mean for us who increasingly are becoming addicted to the endless news and communications of our cell phones and tablets. When we are constantly subject to interruption by “breaking news,” how are we to silence ourselves adequately in order to process what we take in and so to hear the summons of Spirit to the truth of things?
It is work to learn to be silent, a work that it is human to resist. In past times, there were moments of enforced solitude and silence, where, however difficult it may have been for us, we had to learn something of how to live with ourselves and in the emptiness out of which God could speak a Word to us. Now, however, for many of us, we need never be “out of touch.” An experience many of us have while driving these days points to the extremity of this reality. How often we experience when in a line of cars at an intersection that when the red light turns green, the lead car fails to move. Much of the time this is because the driver of that car has felt compelled to check her or his cell phone during that brief moment of silence. Our capacity to tolerate aloneness and silence seems to be continually and dramatically decreasing. Is it, perhaps, not coincidental that our shared sense and understanding of the truth and our commitment to honest and true speech, is deteriorating along with it?
We live in an angry and conflictual time. Much of how we address each other is born of anger and evokes anger in the other. Truthful words, on the other hand, bring peace. The words of the Angel to the Shepherds begin with the phrase: “Do not be afraid . . . .” God’s word comes to be in us in silence, and it then finds expression through us in peace. In a fearful and threatening time, may we take our time to enter the silence in which we can hear the beating of our own heart and the one Word God is speaking in us. Then we shall be in a position to speak to others only what it is that the Spirit gives us to speak.
Better than a thousand meanings words is one word of sense, which brings the hearer peace.
Better than a thousand senseless verses is one which brings the hearer peace.
Better than a thousand useless verses is one word of the truth which brings the hearer peace.
The Dhammapada, vs. 100-102