One learns in school that each subject has its own vocabulary. In math, there is value, sum, denominator, and so on. In science, we learn of hypothesis, theory, density, and compound. In literature, terms, such as, metaphor, plot and theme, help us discuss a poem or story.
Theology, the study of the nature of God, also has a vocabulary: eternal, transcendent, omniscient, and sacred, yet these are terms that label and name things about God, and do not speak of the experience of God’s presence. As some theologians distinguish, we are meant to experience the “energies” of God that emanate from His grandeur, goodness and love. But man is not capable of knowing God’s essence – only God perfectly knows Himself. And before this abyss of His God-ness, we are speechless. And yet, we learn in the Gospel and the Church that we are to draw close to Him, that the Kingdom of God is within us, and that we are members of His Body. At first this seems to be a difficulty if not a contradiction.
There is a broader definition of the word “theologian” from an older Christian tradition that includes anyone who seeks spiritual union with God. They are truly involved in seeking God but without the specialized and academic language of professional theologians. These are “the salt of the earth”, those spoken of in the Beatitudes, the simpler folks for whom it is enough to follow the yearning of their hearts to be closer to God by loving the Gospels and listening to the ancient teachings of the Church, the Early Fathers, that speaks as direct extensions of the Word. As the wise and saints declare, everyone is called to the contemplation of God, of the Lord. Everyone.
As we move in silence and simple contemplation nearer the experience of God’s real presence in the heart, and the wonder of the world, what vocabulary, what language are we to use to describe this divine knowledge? What do we say before the Crib and Child? The language of poetry, of paradox and mystery, come to mind such as we find in the words of Moses, King David, Isaiah, and most mystically in Solomon’s Song of Songs.
This new way of thinking about union with God is puzzling to the logical and worldly-minded as it continues into the New Testament with well know phrases, “the first shall be last”, and events such as Jesus blessing Mary Magdalen the famous prostitute, loving and placing the good thief into Paradise, and as He announced His time on earth to be devoted to sinners, the “bad ones” among us, and not so much “the good ones” among the self-righteous cult of the Pharisees. At the same time, He leaves us with the positive assurance that reaches back to the memory of our first existence in Genesis, that, “the Kingdom of God is within you”. (Luke 17:21).
Concerning the Incarnation, also known as the Nativity or Christmas, what language can we use to describe the Creator of all things, One who has no beginning and no end, Who enters the Time and Space and World He created, as a new born human infant of a human mother, Mary, who gives birth without the aide of a human father, and Who as true human named Jesus (Savior) remains true God and member of the Holy Trinity? In Christian spirituality, you can see why silence is often the only response to things Divine, such as the reality of the Virgin birth of the Son of God.
I experienced an artistic expression of the reaction of silence during my first visit to France. In the South, in one village, I purchased a set of les santons, that is, hand crafted clay figures painted and dressed as French villagers of the 18th and 19th centuries who form the village community who have come to adore the Christ Child. There craftsmen have given no regard for historical authenticity such as palm trees or desert sand, camels or ancient middle eastern dress. For older Christian nations, the Miracle of Bethlehem has entered all time by being above time where the eternal Spirit of God rules the universe.
The small quaint store sold figurines in the front, the workshop was in the back, and upstairs the man and wife had their bedroom and kitchen. In the 20th century, they still practiced their centuries old craft which was an inspiration in itself. Included in the creche set before me were the village visitors to Mary and Joseph and the Infant (occupying a miniature stable), the men and women peddlers, a vine dresser, a women carrying a bundle of sticks on her shoulders, a baker, and other representatives of the trades and crafts of village life before modernization.
My eye caught one male santon figure who carried nothing. He was dressed in the simple shirt, cap, vest and trousers of a peasant, probably a French farmer. His arms were up and bent at the elbows raised over his head with palms open to the sky. His head was tilted down toward the Crib. This, I learned was, “lou ravi”, the “ravished one” who stands in awe and wonder in amazement and silence before God made Man. The presence of “lou ravi” in the midst of the others figurines cast a hush in the little village drama. The longer I looked at him captured in his position of astonishment, the more I knew I would purchase the whole set just for his presence back home in Kansas.
It is because we are made by the Divine that we have the image and likeness of the Divine at the center of our being, in our hearts. All the ancients and early Christians knew the heart as the spiritual and intellectual center of the human person. Only at the beginning of the modern world does science begin to refer to the heart as a pump that describes in turn the circulatory system. Perhaps the Romantics of the 19th century tried to rescue this rather cold image of the heart as an organ by making it the center of the emotions particularly of love and melancholy; but the effect of this noble effort eventually left reason and will, as well as the emotions, as separate entities often isolated as hostile relatives of the soul.
Still, the voices of the earlier traditions of Christianity are here: silence, they say, is the needful condition of our otherwise overwhelmed and busy minds, it is silence that is the proper state of man to receive the Holy Spirit, God. Silence is the beginning of redemption because it is only under the quiet conditions we can hear God in our hearts. Our days are the days when it is more frequently asked: Where is He? Why doesn’t God hear my prayers and answer? The wise Fathers of the Church would likely answer: He does hear our prayers and He does give us good counsel in return, but our world is too noisy and our minds are too busy, to hear Him.
Before the Gospels, before the Christian Church and Fathers of the Church, the Psalms gave poetic instruction how we should find God within: “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.” (Psalm 61)
It is “lou ravi” that stands still in time though if he would speak he might recall the words of the ancient hymn:
“Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly-minded, for with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand.”
Or we can recall from our tradition the song:
“Silent night, holy night…” as we gaze with the eyes of our heart upon not just the presence of the Incarnate God in our world, but the Lord Jesus “so tender and mild”, who “sleeps in heavenly peace” before us and within us, as we learn to know from His birth, the “Son of God, love’s pure light.”