Hearing God’s silence

Lawrence S Cunningham on St John of the  Cross:


John’s understanding of God is never domesticated. God is not some object out there but an inexpressible mystery who is both near to us and beyond us and our imaginings and thought. However, John’s God is not some abstract divinity but rather a Trinitarian God: the One who from all eternity pours forth the Word both in eternity and in history. In one of his most striking sayings John says that the Father spoke one Word, which was his Son, and this Word he speaks always in eternal silence, and in silence must it be heard by the soul. There is an immense theology in that brief, almost aphoristic, observation. God’s silence is broken by the Word (in the inner life of the Trinity, in creation and in the incarnation), but we must live in such a way as to hear that silence. The contemporary British Carmelite Ruth Burrows put it nicely in her book Living in Mystery: God gave all God had to give in giving us Jesus. God kept nothing back from us, not even God’s only Son, and in this gift of Jesus is the gift of the divine Self.

That hearing of the silence that is the Word is, in the deepest sense, prayer. Iain Matthew, one of the most astute commentators on John of the Cross, has written that beyond praise, petition and begging for pardon, the impulse in prayer is toward presence. Echoing St. Thomas Aquinas, John insists that God sustains every soul and dwells in every soul substantially, even though it may be the greatest sinner in the world (Ascent11.5.3). When we become aware of that presence, it is not some generic God but the indwelling Trinity that we discover made present to us by Christ and the gift of Christ that is the Spirit. Behind that vision, of course, is the conviction of Augustine that God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves.


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