“And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and enable your servants to speak your word with all boldness, as you stretch forth your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are done through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”Acts 4: 29-30
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”John 3: 5-8
One of the distinguishing characteristics of our distinctive humanity is our capacity to communicate to each other in speech. As we read from the Acts of the Apostles in these days following Easter, we see that one of the great manifestations of the resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit is the disciples’ ability to speak boldly and courageously of the signs and wonders done through the name of Jesus. It is to proclaim, without fear and compromise, what God has done and is doing in their lives.
It takes great courage, however, to speak the truth. So much of our conversation seems taken up with words intended to fill the empty space, or for gossip about others, or for self-promotion. As Jesus says to Nicodemus in the passage from John’s gospel we read today, “Flesh gives birth to flesh.” It is through the reception of the Spirit that the disciples of Jesus find the courage to speak the word that God gives them “with all boldness.” We, also, must be “born again” if we are to find the courage to speak from the depths of our own hearts, that through our speech “the Spirit” may give “birth to spirit” in the others.
On Saturday I watched a brief 17 minute film entitled The Silence. It consists of the most simple of plots. Fatma and her mother are Kurdish refugees in Italy. They are visiting the doctor, and Fatma must serve as translator for her mother. Having received permission from the mother to tell her daughter about her mother’s health, the doctor relates that the mother has breast cancer and has had it for a very long time. She must be immediately admitted into the hospital for treatment. The daughter, however, is unable to relate this news to her mother. Finally, the daughter, who has fled to the bathroom to avoid her mother’s direct question about what the doctor has said, returns but discovers her mother to be missing. She frantically runs about the hospital, until, returning to the doctor’s office, sees that her mother has found someone to translate for her. The film concludes with the mother coming out of the office and holding the hand of her distraught daughter.
The silence of the title is a silence that pervades so much of our social interaction. For all the speaking we do, we live in a silence about the most significant aspects of our lives. It is often what most controls the quality of our lives together about which we are unable to speak. Why is the daughter unable to tell her mother what the doctor has said? As with all human motivation, the answer is no doubt a complex one. And yet, certainly one part of the answer is that in speaking aloud the “unspeakable,” we make it real. It takes courage to speak because it takes courage to face reality. We get through life, in large part, on the basis of our illusions. For almost all of us, there are truths that seem too difficult or threatening to face. And so, we remain silent about them. Fatma imagines that she cannot survive without her mother, and so she denies the reality of her mother’s mortality by means of her silence.
This kind of silence is of a very different order from that silence that actually mediates the Mystery. The nature of that silence is trust and openness. It is possible only when we can dare, in a radical sense, to open ourselves to the incomprehensible but beneficent Mystery. Entering into this silence is only possible for us after we have accepted and expressed the difficult truths of which we have become conscious and aware. As long as we are hiding from the truth, our silence will be filled with that which we are trying to avoid. This is the silence of the flesh rather than of the spirit.
In the film, this repressive silence manifests itself in the refusal to speak. In everyday life, however, repressive silence can often manifest in an excess of words. I am a person to whom words come quite readily. Yet, those words are not always true expression. They can often be a refusal to speak what is truly to be spoken. We all know the experience of being confronted with a difficult truth about ourselves and discovering that our first defense is to run off at the mouth. We also know the other side, of how difficult it is to get through to a person who cuts off our attempts at true communication with a torrent of words.
As the poet and songwriter Paul Simon once put it, we are surrounded by “the sounds of silence.” So often human conversation, when it consists of space filler, gossip, or self-promotion, becomes intensely boring. Our refusal to speak what is to be spoken of contributes to a what can seem to be a life of quiet or noisy desperation. In the film, Fatma’s desperation becomes apparent as she runs around the hospital in search of her mother. So much of what we do and say in life is our own running around in an attempt to alleviate our desperation, fear, and loneliness while evading the kind of expression that can truly open to communication and communion. Once Fatma overhears her mother being told of her condition, she sits and begins to fall into a deeper silence in which, no doubt, her fear and sadness comes to the fore. But then, her mother comes out and touches her hand. To keep her secret, Fatma had to avoid the very thing she most longed for, contact with her mother. It is only after the truth has been communicated that they are truly together.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that to live with him in the Kingdom we must be born again. Oswald Chambers points out that to be born again we must first of all allow into our consciousness and be willing to express in our lives that we are “destitute.” This is the deep secret that we struggle to keep and refuse to express. To be sure, we are far more than destitute. We have within us the life of our spirit, which shares the life of God’s Spirit. But the only way to know that truth, to feel the touch of God’s spirit on our hand, is to face the feeling of destitution. We use our gift of speech so often to communicate our sense of competence and power. This is precisely what makes so much conversation so boring. Yet, at times, someone will speak powerfully in a way that awakens us. At a recent meeting, one of the participants ended by saying, “I have a lot of work to do and a lot to learn. And I’ll need help to learn it.” His words struck my heart most deeply of all that was said that day. This was courageous and bold speech in its simple and direct truth. He spoke the truth for all of us, as we are in our depths. We have a lot to learn, and we need each other to do it. This is Spirit giving birth to spirit.
Jesus tells us that when we pray we are to go into our rooms, close our door, and pray to our Father in secret. It is in our secrets where the Spirit is hiding. Facing the truth, the real, requires courage, and to express it even more so. We fear the truth because it manifests our destitution. We do not readily believe that God casts down the mighty but raises up the lowly. Our common understanding is the reverse. Yet, when one boldly expresses the truth, we discover that it awakens us, that the felt tedium of all the ordinary discursive assertion of our competence and might is actually a sign of life in us. It is the spirit in us longing to feel the touch of that Spirit that is our true life.
We have to realize that we cannot earn or win anything from God; we must either receive it as a gift or do without it. The greatest blessing spiritually is the knowledge that we are destitute; until we get there Our Lord is powerless. He can do nothing for us if we think we are sufficient of ourselves; we have to enter into His Kingdom through the door of destitution. As long as we are rich, possessed of anything in the way of pride or independence, God cannot do anything for us. It is only when we get hungry spiritually that we receive the Holy Spirit. The gift of the essential nature of God is made effectual in us by the Holy Spirit; He imparts to us the quickening life of Jesus, which puts “the beyond” within, and immediately “the beyond” has come within, it rises up to “the above,” and we are lifted into the domain where Jesus lives (John 3: 5).Oswald Chambers, My Utmost For His Highest, November 28