Sacred Silence

Volume 50, Issue 2, Michael J. Crosbie

The World of Silence is Max Picard’s 1948 meditation on silence in our world, its violation, and its spiritual dimensions. I place this book within the same dominion as two other works that I’ve written about in these pages over the past year: Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath. The ideas in these books, each on a separate subject, are united by the authors’ perceptions of how the realms of darkness, time, and silence possess their own sacred qualities. For Tanizaki, darkness accentuates light; within darkness we can find unfathomable holiness, mysterious and deep. Heschel’s book challenges our conception of the sacred as located somewhere in space, lodged within a physical place. For him, only time is sacred, because we can neither create it nor control it; only the divine can do so.

Picard writes movingly about the godly in silence. He invites us to question our worship of “usefulness” in the shrines that we build to the practical: “Silence is the only phenomenon today that is ‘useless.’ It does not fit into the world of profit and utility; it simply is.” He questions the values of a world whose highest praise is for function and purpose. Silence, he writes, “gives things something of its own holy uselessness, for that is what silence is: holy uselessness.” In this, Picard sees within silence the presence of the deity: “…silence points to a state where only being is valid: the state of the divine. The mark of the divine in things is preserved by their connection with the world of silence.”

Our mistake is in thinking that silence is a state of absence, that it lacks something, that it is incomplete. For Picard, this is to misunderstand its blessed completeness: “Silence contains everything within itself. It is not waiting for anything; it is always wholly present in itself and it completely fills out the space in which it appears.” In these ways, silence is like the divine, complete in every way: “The sphere of faith and the sphere of silence belong together. …in this silence man approaches the silence that surrounds God Himself.”

In a noisy world, sacred places are the last sanctuaries for silence. Picard writes: “Silence has locked itself up in cathedrals and protected itself with walls. The cathedrals are like silence inlaid with stone. The cathedrals stand like enormous reservoirs of silence. The cathedral tower is like a heavy ladder on which the silence climbs into heaven, to fade and disappear therein.”

I close with a reflection on Mary Bishop Coan, who for several years served as Faith & Form’s copy editor (and who I met when I was an editor at Progressive Architecture in the 1990s). Her passing in February marked the end of a life dedicated to the clarity of communication, the precision of language, and the joy to be found in words. One of my favorite experiences as editor of this journal was to receive copy back from Mary covered with notes and observations about the English language: perhaps the use of a term, the correct deployment of a semicolon, or the untangling of run-on sentence. In her labors as a copy editor Mary was a gifted teacher, and I like to think that I am a better writer for having known her.

Michael J. Crosbie is the Editor-in-Chief of Faith & Form and can be reached by email at [email protected]

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