Death in the Desert
by Alan Jones
SILENCE IS IMPORTANT in all the great religious paths. It involves a kind of breakdown, an annihilation for the sake of reorganizing the way we perceive ourselves and the world. When this happens the quality of silence changes; it becomes the bond that holds two lovers together. "Many shared silences... are concentrated moments of communion." They are periods of deep mutual appreciation, which Kurtz [in his article, "Silence," in Commonweal, March 1984] defines as "the ability to love without blurring one's boundaries."
Silence, in the end, can become a healing and comforting experience. And if silence is necessary in order for us to be with each other without manipulation and control, this will be all the more true when we are with each other in God. Prayer becomes primarily an encounter with death and a waiting in silence. Indeed, prayer is, from this point of view, a daily willingness to place ourselves on the threshold of death and wait there. Prayer becomes an anticipation of and a participation in our death so that new life may be revealed in us. Prayer is the time when "we move from the agitated periphery of our lives -- and which we identify our lives tout court -- to a silent interior space."
According to the desert tradition, this empty space is actually indescribably full. The process of detachment from this "agitated periphery" (with which we identify our whole being) can be extremely painful. It is a kind of dying, because it means giving up the manipulative concepts we have about ourselves and (worse, if you are a believer) our "God." A kind of "atheism" sets in with regard to the infantile "God" of our immature imagination. In the silence we feel deserted. God is lost to us, and we are lost to ourselves. In fact, "we" are dead. Kurz put it this way: "The loss of the old God -- however nagging and infantilizing he may have been -- can be experienced as desertion. Knowing no other way, we took these attentions for love, and when we come to recognize them for what they are, we left pained, rageful, and then alone."
It is out of this deadening silence that we are reborn.
Taken from Alan Jones, Soul Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983).