Romantic Love, Silence, and Ash Wednesday
When a wall of sound floods our consciousness, when visual images bombard our eyes from flickering screens, when endless online chatter creates a virtual din in our minds, something is lost: silence. When relationship friction produces discomfort in our daily lives, we need to reset, to get into a good mental space, and cast out the demons of pettiness. This silence can be something we do alongside a partner, but we also need some moments of solitary silence to reflect and reset.
T. S. Eliot, a poet who converted to Christianity between the composition of his famous “Hollow Men” and his post-conversion “Ash Wednesday,” emphasizes the importance of silence, especially as it relates to the quest for divine love. Permit me to highlight a few places in “Ash Wednesday” that illustrate the ways in which we can use silence profitably. Eliot wrestles with themes from Dante’s Divine Comedy, and describes an ascent up a spiral staircase, toward greater connection to a mystical reality beyond daily life. Each turn of the staircase relates to his turning away—his repentance—from petty things of life to the way of the Gospel. He writes of turning not from fun, joyful stuff, but from the hollow things. In this, he encourages readers to…
… pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss.
Most of us realize that we should avoid gossip. Yet that’s not our only wasted effort. Incessant but insignificant battles distract us from our true purpose in life and love. Sometimes, these battles involve important relationships, political movements, and religion. But when we approach them in a shallow way, we clutter our days with endless chatter, in order to keep out silence. This is often because we are too frightened to take an honest look at our spiritual and emotional lives. Moreover, this problem of “too much discussion” relates to a deeper spiritual problem. Often, we become like ghosts, clinging to the resentments of the past and we get caught in a vortex of our own bitterness.
Unhealthy obsession with our own righteousness and the failures of those we love is toxic. With such thinking, we congratulate ourselves that we’re on an important crusade, but fail to cultivate compassion toward our romantic partner. Sometimes, these battles are worthwhile. But more often they are meaningless hills on which to let our relationships die. Frequently, our ostensible commitment to righteousness and idealism is really just our own sense of self-importance. When lovers let us down, we become frustrated, not so much because the principles of goodness, truth and beauty have been violated, but because we surely deserve to have been treated better. How dare others not curtsy before our own majesty? When we start thinking like this, we do well to turn to Eliot’s prayer, embedded in the poem, which is both helpful and healing:
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.
Of all the compelling lines about the tension between silence and speaking in the poem, my favorite lines are these:
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.
The center of the cosmos is the silent Word. Swirling around the Word, the world is a cacophony of chatter, created by vexed and frantic men and women. Within this little hurricane of human life, we must cling closely to the Logos. We must learn to return to the way of Jesus.
In other words, we need to get centripetal even as our madly spinning world creates centrifugal force, drawing us away from God. The unholy energy that tries to spin us out of the Tao’s orbit doesn’t always appear sinister. In religious circles, it might take the form of theological bickering, church conflicts about building plans, or incessant nagging. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with intellectual discussion, architectural planning, or moral service; but we must never become disconnected (“Suffer me not to be separated”) from the Source of life itself if our activities are going to have any healing effect on those around us.
In your own relationships, if you seem to have lost your bearings, pause and seek silence. Amidst that silence, listen for whispers of hope that can sustain your internal and relational health. Eliot writes:
Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the daytime and in the nighttime
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice
Even though Eliot probably didn’t have marriage in mind when he wrote these words, they point us in the right direction. If we avoid confrontation with the divine face, and content ourselves with frivolous noise, we will miss the power of this one-way love for us.
When we are missing it, it’s impossible to pour it out to others without reserve, because we treat love like a transaction in that bean-counting relationship economy. Once we fall into a cycle of romantic score keeping, it’s hard to extract ourselves. In such cases when we think the ledger is tilted one way or the other, we make noise: we get pregnant, or go on a vacation to Fiji, or build an extra wing on the house. Such shared activities can of course contribute to the richness and vibrancy of a relationship, but without contentment and peace, none of that clutter can do much more than distract us from our essential despair.
So, if you are in a relationship, encourage your partner to seek times of solitude, reflection, prayer, and stillness. If a spouse needs to step out, take a walk, and think, don’t interpret this like a threat or an act of aggression. Rather, commit together to embrace moments of calm, after which you can be renewed for loving engagement once more. This would fit with Paul’s recommendation: “Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control.” (1 Corinthians 7:5)
This reflection was adapted from Sexy: The Quest for Erotic Virtue in Perplexing Times, available through major online retailers, and also 1517’s shop.