On November 15, if I live that long, I will complete my allotted seventy years. It’s not a limit I take literally; there are plenty of exceptions on either side of the number. But it’s a good reminder of the brevity of life and of the certainty that it will end, and of the need to be fully present, attentive, and responsive to it while it lasts. “Teach me the shortness of life,” the psalmist prayed, “that I may gain wisdom of heart.” Vita brevis, memento mori, carpe diem.
How much wisdom of heart I gain will be up to others to assess, but it sometimes feels as if I’m acquiring at least some semblance of it, and that gives me hope. So on the threshold of my seventy-first year, a year that will of course, along with all that may follow, be purely gift, I retreated to the Abbey of the Genesee, a nearby Trappist monastery, for a few days of silence in which to listen and see if Wisdom would speak to me. She did, and her message was simple: “Listen.”
I retreated to a deeper silence than I was finding at home among the distractions and busyness of my ordinary surroundings, a silence in which to listen past the inner distractions that I always and everywhere carry with me, a silence in which I might hear some whisper of the wisdom of heart the psalmist sought. I took with me a few books – Caussade’s The Sacrament of the Present Moment; Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind; Father John-Julian’s richly annotated translation of The Cloud of Unknowing – for the motivation and encouragement they might afford. But, so they would not also be distractions, I went with the intent to sit in silence for long periods and listen.
And in the silence Wisdom said, “Listen. Sit with the longing, the yearning, that is God’s answer to prayer, the inarticulate groaning that binds to God the one who prays.” So I sat and listened. And silence turned out to be not the absence of an answer to my prayer but the answer, the presence, the union with God for which I yearn. To abide in perfect silence, I knew, is to abide in the Eternal.
Wisdom didn’t respond to me with an answer that I can set down in my journal or hang on my wall as a piece of calligraphy. Wisdom responded with something deeper, opening depths to me in profound silence, so that I heard a whisper, however slight and brief, of what Frithjof Schuon only began to describe:
Conversing with God, He will give thee answer.
Or else His Silence will an answer be.
For He is with thee; thou never art alone.
In His Stillness may thy heart be stirred —
[PARABOLA, vol. 24, no. 2, p. 89]