Shuck and Jive

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Sound of Silence--A Sermon

The Sound of Silence
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

October 21, 2012

For God alone my soul waits in silence,
for my hope is from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
On God rests my deliverance and my honour;
my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.

Trust in him at all times, O people;
pour out your heart before him;
God is a refuge for us.
Psalm 62:5-8

We returned last night from our vacation. Bev, Katy, and I went on a cruise. A Carnival Cruise on the cruise ship, Imagination. It left Miami stopped at Key West and then at the island of Cozumel where we took a ferry boat and bus to visit the Mayan ruins at Tulum on the Yucatan Penisula. I hadn’t been on a cruise before and it was as they bill it, “fun”!

Fun means they fill your senses with music, food, drink, dance, and entertainment, non-stop. This is about fun and getting out and being out in the sunshine. There are precious few moments for silence. You can hide in your cabin, I suppose, but that defeats the point.

This cruise is the exact opposite of a retreat to a monastery. Not that one is better or more holy or sacred or whatever. A Carnival Cruise and a Benedictine Monastery would represent two different paths. One would be the via positiva with the explosion of images and sounds, the other the via negativa with a silencing of all images.

The cruise ship was fun and good for us. I would do it again. You need a little positiva now and then.

This Fall we are exploring the via negativa as a spiritual path. This is the path of letting go and letting be. This is the path in which a metaphor is silence. The via negativa is not to be equated with suffering or bad things. It isn’t about being “negative.” On the other hand, loss and suffering can be invitations to find spiritual meaning on this path.

If the via positiva is about filling up with images, the via negativa is about emptying out.

For example, in speaking about God, if the via positiva says
everything is God,
the rainbow is God,
the sunshine, the clouds, the trees, you, me.
God is out there.
God is in here.
The stars are the face of God; beauty is God.
Or God is found through this creed or this system of doctrine.
This set of beliefs point to God.
Or I see God everywhere.
I hear God everywhere.
I feel God everywhere.
That is the via positiva.
That is a good thing.
God is a Carnival Cruise ship.
It is constructive theology.

The via positiva is about saying what God is.

The via negativa acknowledges the God constructed by the via positiva and says in addition to all of that Yes, God is also No.
God is not a rainbow, sunshine, clouds, trees, you, and me.
God is not out there.
God is not in here.
The stars are not the face of God.
God is not exclusive to this creed or that system of doctrine or those beliefs.
The sights are I see are not God.
The sounds I hear are not God. My feelings are not of God.
I feel no thing, not even God.
That is the via negativa.

This is the path of letting go even of God in order for God to be.

We might call it deconstructive theology.

An image for this is from 1 Kings 19. Elijah is in a cave. He is frightened. He is alone. People are trying to kill him. He hears the word of the Lord, who tells Elijah:
‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

Then the Lord comes to speak to Elijah.

The storyteller has captured the via negativa.

The sound of sheer silence.

Have you ever heard the sound of sheer silence?

That is the sound you hear when the foundations that have held you have been shaken. When the beliefs you inherited are like a bowl that is filled with holes and it holds no water. It is the sound of your experience of life being too real for your religion. When your religion becomes too small to hold your life, your spiritual path is the via negativa.

It doesn’t matter what religion or philosophy, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Atheist even. You notice it when you begin to struggle with the tradition and with others and finally with yourself. It is an exciting if unnerving, perhaps even frightening, and possibly lonely path. It is a path that many resist because it requires that “you walk the lonesome valley by yourself.” It is a path that calls you to say ‘No’ to the tribe. When the tribe or its spokesperson says this is what we believe and you say well…maybe not me, you are on the via negativa.

You may not know what it is you can affirm. You have to stay with that. The via negativa invites you to stay with that not knowing, with that uncertainty, with that letting go and not knowing if there is anything, but trusting that that is the path to take. It is the way of silence.

From Matthew Fox, Original Blessing:
The need for silence that Zen speaks of, that wisdom literature celebrates, that Eckhart praises, and that Merton calls for is not just about oral silence. Silence means the letting go of all images—whether oral ones or auditory ones or visual ones or inner ones or cognitive ones or imaginative ones. Whether of time or of space, of inner or of outer. It is a radical letting go of language. A letting language go. A concentration on what is non-language, non-music, non-self, non-God. It is being. A being still. Eckhart puts it this way:

One should love God mindlessly, without mind or mental activities or images or representations. Bare your soul of all mind and stay there without mind. Pp. 136-137

How do you do that? How do you let go?

At times our life situations are invitations to this path. We may be on it whether we want to be or not. The challenge then is not to try to fill it with noise too soon. Suffering and loss alone is not the path. They can be invitations to the path. We have to be with the loss. Honor it. Honor the silence that comes with it.

Every week in worship we do something counter-cultural. We have an extended moment of silence during our time of meditation. It can be discomfiting. We are not used to periods of silence, especially in a group setting. Someone needs to entertain us, do something, say something, show us something. Meditation invites us to sink into the very moment we are actually in. As opposed to thoughts ahead or thoughts behind, we are invited to be with ourselves. Silence is that vehicle.

The via negativa or the way of silence is also an opportunity to be honest with ourselves about our doubts, our own alienation, our vulnerability and our struggle.

I want to read to you a section from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is an introduction to the Twelve Steps. You may say, "I don’t need that. I am not an alcoholic."  That’s fine.  I don't insist.  But you may find it resonates.

I think it captures the essence of the via negativa, the spiritual path of letting go and letting be…
Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average. There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.

Our stories disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now. If you have decided you want what we have and are willing to go to any length to get it – then you are ready to take certain steps.

At some of these we balked. We thought we could find an easier, softer way, but we could not. With all the earnestness at our command, we beg of you to be fearless and thorough from the start. Some of us have tried to hold on to our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go absolutely.

Remember that we deal with alcohol – cunning, baffling, powerful! Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power – that one is God. May you find Him now!

Half measures availed us nothing. We stood at the turning point. We asked His protection and care with complete abandon.

Here are the steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery….

The book goes on to list the twelve steps. This Twelve Step program, developed in the 1930s has been adopted by and adapted to fit other programs of recovery. In many respects, it is a good spiritual path for anyone. It is a path of rigorous honesty. That is the heart of the via negativa.

After the 12 steps, the Big Book continues:
Many of us exclaimed, "What an order! I can't go through with it." Do not be discouraged. No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles. We are not saints. The point is that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines. The principles we have set down are guides to progress. We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.

The via negativa is a spiritual path. It is a path in which the emphasis is on progress not perfection.

It is a path that begins with the sound of sheer silence.

It is a path of
willingness to wait,
to be,
to enter the silence,
to be honest with who you are and where you have been,
and to let that self be embraced,
and loved.



  1. The best soundtrack for the Via Negativa:

    4'44" by John Cage.

    You should listen to it sometime.