Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Speak Humility Silence Love

My desert heroes, the Abbas and Ammas of the Fourth Century, valued silence. There are endless stories and sayings about this. It was a way to practice humility. It was a way to practice listening---to others as well as for God. It was a path to loving their neighbor.

I'm often quiet in a group. Sometimes it's because I'm trying to practice what my heroes taught, a lot of times it's just that I've grown increasingly socially awkward. We live in a culture that finds silence uncomfortable, even when we're alone. We keep music and television playing so we never have to experience the silence. I'm sure my silence in groups rubs up against that cultural norm and I sometimes perceive that my silent awkwardness makes people uncomfortable. Out of hospitality, another virtue among the monks, I might try to speak more. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it only increases the awkwardness.

Of course there is a time to speak.

We have these collections of "sayings" because they spoke sometimes. Sometimes it was a novice to the desert life approaching an elder, asking, "Abba, give me a word." The abba may or may not have answered the request, but they did often enough to give us a large body of literature.

They might also speak out against something happening that was patently wrong. They were big on not judging (some sayings tell us there is nothing worse than passing judgment), and so when they spoke up, I imagine it was out of some clear call to speak.

I think of people throughout history who have spoken out. Just in the last 150 years of American history, we have the voices speaking out against slavery, for women's suffrage, for civil rights . . . The famous slogan of the Act Up activists in the early years of the AIDS crisis was "Silence = Death." Just yesterday, I specifically asked, on Facebook, for my straight cis male friends to speak up more against rape culture because I'd noticed that on a few threads wherein it was discussed the only people speaking were women and gay men. An awkward but generally useful conversation thread followed.

Sometimes speaking is as awkward as keeping silent.

The point of both speaking and keeping silence is one and the same. It's not to appear the most knowledgeable or to fix the problem at hand or to avoid conflict or to prove rightness or wrongness. If the greatest commandments are to love God and to love neighbor as self, then whether we keep silent or if we speak out, the point is to love.

It won't be an easy, sweet love. Not all the time. When it is, it will be an enormous gift.

And someone won't like it or find it too uncomfortable or otherwise judge you for your effort.

But the point  also is not to be liked and always comfortable and free of conflict. The point is to love.

Whether we speak or keep silent, we will make mistakes. We will love badly. We will fail horribly. We will not find this love to bring a peaceful existence at all times.

And we must find our way to do it. It's the greatest commandment.

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