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The One-ness of Silence

Fr Laurence Freeman OSB

Summary of a talk given at Westminster Cathedral Hall, 17 December 2007.
It is based on notes made by a member of the Silence in the City team, and is included here with Fr Laurence's permsssion.


Twenty-five years ago John Main said the most important thing for people of our time to accomplish is to recover the experience and meaning of silence. Today it remains urgently necessary to rediscover the contemplative dimension of Christianity, and we can do so by experiencing the power and meaning of silence.

Silence is not an absence, nor a canvas waiting to be filled. It is not threatening, but something deeply attuned to our humanity.

Simply talking about silence can be dangerous, so we shall shortly be doing the work of silence as well: I shall be offering you a way of entering into the experience of silence.

Jesus’ prayer for unity

Jesus’ view of his own mission is contained in his great prayer for unity in John 17: “I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.” The heart of the Gospel is the mystery of Oneness.

Both young and old ask, “What is the meaning of my life?” Jesus’ prayer suggests an answer: if we are divided, we fail to communicate what we’ve been given; in our own disunity, we fail to witness to the unity of Jesus with the Father. Without Oneness, it’s all words.

Oneness is the deepest longing of the human person: it is why we seek relationships and love, the reason we make families and community, and why we seek God. But at the same time the longing for unity is paradoxical, because we also want to be ourselves, to know who we are, to have our own identity. So how do we balance One-ness and Self-hood? There is nothing abstract about this question: it lies at the heart of any serious relationship.

GPS technology is astonishing – but no less astonishing is the dog that has been trained to pick up the warning signs of its owner’s epileptic seizures, even before he or she is aware of them. The dog’s only return is love. Which is the greater wonder? We need the technology, but the friendship between the human and the animal kingdom, and our Oneness with nature, is the more wonderful.

We might ask: do we need virtual reality or reality? Students search for relationships through the technology of the Internet, but the more miraculous is to be found in the Oneness of our own being; indeed in our whole human journey. For the Christian, Jesus is the exemplar of human nature and its journey of development. He fulfilled his mission despite his early death. His story is one of quality not quantity, of nature not technology.

Losing and finding

We begin in uterine Oneness, and in infancy, we can’t distinguish ourselves from our surroundings. Similarly, God is too close for us to know who he is.

Education, language and culture are vital for human development, but at the same time, they cause us to fall away from that early Oneness. We learn to say “I” and “no”. The ego is the agent of separation, a separation which is both painful and necessary. Every day, we lose and find. The Gospel is full of parables about losing and finding; the Prodigal Son is a prime example.

The loss of material things sets off a disproportionate anxiety, because it touches off other experiences of loss and unfinished grief.

The rhythm of losing and finding also goes on at a deeper level, and Jesus says that we must in fact lose ourselves in order to find who we really are. How many deaths do we have to die?

When we understand that the losses are part of the process of finding, we can say that we are on the spiritual journey.

The Gospels emphasise Jesus’ great loss, but he must have experienced many previous ones. With his last words, he enters the non-verbal silence of the cross. At that moment, God became utterly distant. Jesus experienced a moment of confusion of identity: so who am I? If that had been the end, it would all have been meaningless, but the Resurrection brought him to a post-verbal silence. Meister Eckhart said that nothing is so like God as silence.

The quest for Oneness

The quest for Oneness lies at the heart of the human journey. By going through the death of the self, we reach a non-dual state. I am, but am no longer who or what I thought I was. We no longer cling: you can only cling to what you are separate from.

In non-duality there is not one, and not two. The Trinity represents the non-duality of God. The goal of the human journey is to experience that non-duality. The Desert Fathers spoke of man becoming God in a second Oneness, in which words are unnecessary because there is no audience.

We are invited to reflect on our own experience of loss and the healing and growth that can come from it.

This contemplative understanding is essential for the Church, so we don’t become congregations of fear and separation. In this contemplative tradition, we come to see Christ as our true self. Each congregation and each person becomes the whole Christ.

The practical consequences: learning to meditate

If this contemplative understanding of the human journey is right, what are the practical consequences?

In a period of religious confusion, many seek the experience of Oneness through ecstasy: to take me out of myself. However, the technologies of ecstasy lead to addiction. We need to be able to say: there’s another way, i.e. the way of silence.

Our desire to see God as an object is a barrier. We can never see God as an object: we can only know him by sharing in the divine self-knowledge. Unless we go through the loss of the ego we cannot find the Oneness of the self. The traditional teachings are full of paradox. The fact that we can’t know God with the mind shows that we have to go by way of the heart, i.e. meditation, as in the Cloud of Unknowing, which describes meditation as “the work of one-ing”.

There are different levels:
A one-ing with ourselves, a personal integration and healing, which involves learning to bring our past safely into our present.

A one-ing with others, in which we no longer fear the stranger, and where compassion and justice begin.

And a one-ing with God, the ground of our being.

In this work, we’re not looking for ecstasy, for visions, or for mystical experiences, but for growth in all three areas of our daily life.

How do we know we’re making progress, and why do we keep meditating? Because we are changing, becoming one, and the change is manifesting itself in all areas of our life. It shows in how we react to the pain and the gifts.

All forms of prayer lead to contemplation: any expression of the depths of our being leads us towards the experience of the Oneness of contemplation. This is a totally natural process, but it still needs to be learned; and all learning creates a new person. By learning the language of silence, through meditation, we become different people.

And we learn to meditate by meditating: no amount of reading and talking will teach it.

The prayer of the heart is simply taught. We need to be physically silent: then begin the interior work. Sit upright, with the eyes closed: then let go of the constant stream of thoughts and feelings. We’re not trying to change anything, only take our attention off the stream of thoughts. We exercise our capacity to choose what we pay attention to. We’re not turning off the TV of our minds, nor replacing one thought with another. The method is very simple: it’s a matter of staying with a single word of phrase, a mantra, saying it continuously, and of returning to it when the mind has wandered off (this alone is a quick route to humility!) The mantra takes root in the heart and the consciousness, and begins to arise spontaneously. We become conscious of the sacrament of Oneness.

“Maranatha” – “Come, Lord” is the oldest Christian prayer (though we don’t think about its meaning). It is a way of letting go of all our thoughts. We say it silently; we listen to it as we say it, gently, faithfully, attentively (“with faith and love”). We let all other thoughts go, and find something greater.

Page updated by hn on 19 January 2013