A Tree Full of Monkeys

Why the Soul Needs Silence

In the earliest years of Christian teaching, dogma was proclaimed only when a denial of something (Jesus’ humanity or his divinity, for example) made it necessary. The articulated doctrine of the Trinity emerged slowly, from the more important domain of silence into the lesser domain of words. Words, even at their best, are inadequate and prone to misunderstanding, leading to concepts and imaginary constructs that can get in the way of participation in the mystery.

We need words, but we need them to take us to the place where we realize their inadequacy. They point us in the right direction, but they are never sufficient.

In dealing with other religions—or for that matter with serious agnosticism—we should at once maintain fidelity to our deepest belief while realizing that our belief cannot exhaust or fully describe the mystery we are trying to point to. I believe that the fullness of what can be found in Christ shows us the relationship between creation and God in a way nothing else can. But as we sit together before the silence at the depth of everything made, I cannot say that a Buddhist or Jew or agnostic might not also be able to tell me something he or she has found there, something I need to hear and might never have been able to discover on my own. 

Even in its inadequacy, however, language is an indicator of the reality of the spiritual. Language points to a world beyond the merely material and quantifiable. To have a word for something is a...

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About the Author

John Garvey is an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal. His most recent book is Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.