Servant of silence

Theology dances awkwardly with silence. The natural business of theology is to put together words about God. But the better the words, the more clearly inadequate they are to their subject and the sooner they run out into silence.

The late Pope John Paul II and Roger Schutz, founder of the ecumenical monastery at Taizé, embody this paradox. The Pope spoke incessantly and passionately about faith. No one could speak with more integrity. He died to a jet stream of other people’s words. Br Roger died during World Youth Day, the late Pope’s favourite rostrum. To his death, at the hands of a disturbed and infatuated woman, the natural response was one of appalled silence.

But silence was Br Roger’s way. His early memories, at a time of sharp religious division, were of his father, a Reformed Pastor praying alone and silently in the Catholic church. He continued to see the Catholic church as a place for silence. He was a dull speaker. His Conferences were the supporting act that prepared the audience for the main event: the silent prayer that followed them.

Certainly, that is how he saw the activities at Taizé. The chants that identify Taizé to so many people find their meaning in the silence that follows them. The hospitality, trust and range of activities that the monastery offers its thousands of young visitors lead them to silence. There they can hear the still voice that speaks to them of great desires.

Taizé was to be about reconciliation. In its earliest years it offered Jews shelter from the Nazis, and German prisoners shelter from French anger. More recently it has promoted reconciliation between divided Christians, between Christians and members of the other great world religions, and between First and Third World. It offers few structures, no detailed plan, only a shared silence before the mystery of God. Br Roger saw this as the contribution of the monastic tradition to all churches.

This reticent style made possible Taizé’s distinctive contribution to Christian unity. Churches welcomed it precisely because it did not challenge their discipline, rhetoric or beliefs. It accepted, for example, the restrictive Catholic discipline of Eucharistic hospitality, but invited people to a silent unity beyond it.

Silence, however, is inherently subversive. It does not challenge words head-on, but invites them to judgment. The more ringing the declaration, the more logically forceful the claim, the louder the sound of boundary pegs being hammered in, then the longer the words will hang in silence. The more space we shall have to assess if the timbre is precisely right. Silence also allows us to weigh our own posturing silences of disengagement and disapproval. It is particularly subversive when we value certainties above truth and rely on a strong rhetoric to sustain them.

In Roger Schutz’s last months, two events captured his significance. In a wordless gesture, he was offered communion at the funeral Mass for Pope John Paul II. Shortly afterwards he died, the victim of a meaningless act. His death consecrated the silence whose servant he had been.

Andrew Hamilton writes regularly for Eureka Street.


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