First Sunday of the month, and it’s fast and testimony meeting. For those who do not know, in this meeting there are no scheduled speakers; the pulpit is open for anyone in the congregation to rise and “bear their testimony.” What exactly is shared in a testimony is not my object to define.
My object lies between the words. Sometimes there is a pause between speakers as no one rises to take the stand. Often, someone who was sitting squirming in his seat will rise to the pulpit, and begin:
“I had to break the awkward silence.”
Silence, the absence of noise, is not an essentially awkward thing. Things are awkward when they feel out of place. When they’re not supposed to be there. When we are used to something else.
Awkward silences only exist in a world that is noisy, and constantly so. We are accustomed to talking to and being talked at. Texts that beep in our pockets and chat windows permeate our lives with cacophony, and earbuds and MP3s mean that the quiet of solitude can be banished for the cost of carrying around a small weight in our pocket and sucking our focus from that which surrounds us.
Something holy is that which is separated from the vulgar. It is not normal nor quotidian. It is rare and precious. Amidst the vulgar cacophony, silence creates a space. It is empty. It can be filled, if we wish: we can keep talking, or we can be awkward, and accept the silence.
The very awkwardness of the silence can be a boon. It discomfits us. We cannot continue living through it as we have lived the rest of our time. We do not know how to approach it. It is something new, unfamiliar, something disorienting. The awkwardness forces us into another frame of mind. Only by becoming disoriented can we reorient ourselves rightly. We are lifted out of our lives – and where we land is up to us.
When we go to the temple, we change into white clothing and speak in whispers; we leave our troubles at the door, and step into another world to commune with God. On the Sabbath day we step out of the week; what consumes our thoughts and our worries is left aside, and we are left with something new. During the passing of the sacrament, we sit in silence, better to hear the still, small voice of the Spirit speaking. We cannot shortchange ourselves by merely persisting in our everyday attitudes. The silence in the schedule is a blessing.
Nearer the beginning of my mission, the lessons my companions and I would teach were full of words: our words. We were comprehensive. We taught so that there could be no misunderstanding. What we did not know was that nothing was being understood by our talking at people. Without silence, after all, there can be no dialogue, and dialogue is the heart of interpersonal communion. As I realized this, I cut down what I said. I gave bonsai lessons, three sentences per principle, and asked questions. I waited for the investigators (learners) to ask questions of their own, in no rush, and sat quiet, intent on listening to their response all the way, after asking my own questions. Lessons were shorter. They were less comprehensive. But they were comprehended, and the Spirit was there.
Even though language is a part of what makes us human, and can convey so many wondrous messages, and without which we would be so terribly, terribly alone, it is not verbosity that makes us human. William Faulkner knew this: “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.” It is that divine spark within each of us that makes us human. Noise, even good noise, can all too easily drown its susurrations.
We must remember the silence that reigned in Gesthemane, where so few words were uttered.
It was in the silence on Golgotha that the Atonement was completed: a silence that even Christ could not comprehend.
No wonder the injunction is to “be still, and know that I am God.”