Thursday, November 13, 2008

"God's first language is silence"?

A couple weeks ago I added a gloss to a quotation from St. Augustine about silence and God's voice. I said:

There is a silence we mistake for God's absence. That silence strikes us as barren and desolate only because our ears are normally more attuned to the hum and buzz of the world than to the soundless speech of God in His word and the immediate ring of the heavenly chorus. If however we gradually become deaf to the world, we may come to hear echoes of the divine stillness. Just as the folly of God is wiser than the erudition of man, so is the silence of God louder and more articulate than the noise of the world. The noise of creation is not bad per se, but only bad in so far as it is out of tune with its own inner harmony, the triune chorus of love by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Some time later a reader expressed appreciation for my thoughts and I added that I had not long thereafter come across a quotation (in the DVD case for Into Great Silence), allegedly from San Juan de la Cruz to the effect that "silence is God's first language." Unfortunately, I was not able to find a proper citation attributing those words to San Juan. Having now gotten my hands on the complete works of San Juan (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1991), and having cross-referenced the index for references to "silence" and "language" (of God), I found the following, for now.

p. 216 "We must not consider a prophecy from the perspective of our perception and language, for God's language is another one, according to the spirit, very different from what we understand, and difficult."

p. 436 "The language of God has this trait: Since it is very spiritual and intimate to the soul, transcending everything sensory, it immediately silences the entire ability and harmonious composite of the exterior and interior senses."

p. 481 "Remaining hidden with him [viz., in the 'secrecy' of one's soul {Mt. 6:6}], you will experience him in hiding, that is, in a way transcending all language and feeling."

p. 642 "This
[i.e., words of burning power that ignite the soul with and unto eternal life] is the language and these the words God speaks in souls that are purged, cleansed, and all enkindled; as David exclaimed: Your word is exceedingly kindled [Ps. 119:139]; and the prophet: Are not my words, perchance, like a fire? [Jer. 23:29]. ... Those who do not have a sound palate, but seek other tastes cannot taste the spirit and life of God's words; his words, rather, are distasteful to them. Hence the loftier were the words of the Son of God, the more tasteless they were to the impure...."

p. 643 "Those who do not relish this language God speaks within them must not think on this account that others do not taste it."

p. 688 "It is impossible for this highest wisdom and language of God, which is contemplation, to be received in anything less than a spirit that is silent and detached from discursive knowledge and gratification."


e. said...

elliot bee: I love it when you post things of this nature -- awesome! (and THANKS!)

the Cogitator said...


Do you love when I post primary source material quotations from saints and Doctors, or do you love when I clarify bibliographical minutiae and "get the scoop" on other obscure claims?

Or perhaps both? ;o)

Or is it the topic of silence that attracts you?

e. said...

It's perhaps a mixture of several things; fact of the matter is, despite what the world prominently teaches, "noise" is highly over-rated.

No wonder folks conflate the silence of God with his absence.

Chad said...

Thanks Elliot, I needed this. Even though I am not a Christian anymore, I still consider myself living a spiritual life in a certain way. To me, "God's voice" is the harmony and peace forever existing in the universe. I shall reflect upon that every night...

Ethan Feldman said...

I believe the quote is from Thomas Keating: "Silence is God's first language; everything else is a poor translation. In order to hear that language, we must learn to be still and to rest in God."
— Thomas Keating quoted in The Sun & Moon Over Assisi by Gerard Thomas Straub Source: