Stuart Kelly, reviewing Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Silence: A Christian History (Allen Lane, £20) in The Guardian (March 30th), touches on Blaise Pascal’s view that “all of man’s misfortunes come from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room” ‑ or on a train, he might have added had he been around now (“I’m just coming in to Connolly”).
Certainly, many if not most of my misfortunes (sixty per cent or upwards, I’d say) come from other people not knowing how to sit quietly. And I’m not being hypocritical: in all honesty I’m rather good at it myself, except of course with the drink on me.
Mac Culloch probes all varieties of Christian response to silence/meditation and its opposite, which I suppose we might call witness. If it’s a choice between Trappism and the happy-clappy, wailing or speaking in tongues thing I know where I stand. Sssh!
Not that Pascal’s remark is really much more than shmart. We would probably not have wanted Martin Luther King to sit quietly in a room, or, for that matter, Mozart. Dr Johnson once observed that “a man is seldom more innocently employed than when making money”, but he was wrong about that too, very wrong.
MacCulloch’s study, it seems, focuses not just on silence as a means to religious or mystical experience but also silence brought on by fear or by self-preservation or a misguided wish to preserve the institution at all costs: silence about child sexual abuse would be the most obvious example. This would certainly seem to be a valid theme, but perhaps better dealt with in a separate work.
The book also treats of “the silence of God”, which puts me in mind of the Yiddish proverb “If God lived on earth, people would break his windows”. Perhaps it is no wonder He is silent, having to put up with all kinds of unmannerly abuse. Of course your cheap atheist would argue that there is another, rather more obvious, reason why God is silent. As the Chinese sage said: “It is very hard to find a black cat in a dark room, particularly if there is no cat.”