SILENCE: The Silence Of The Psalms, by Thomas Merton

silence of the psalms thomas merton

From Bread In The Wilderness

One thing remains to be explained, we have emphasized, in this book, the truth that the Psalms most often become contemplation when, through them, we manage to unite our sufferings with the sufferings of Christ, so that he in turn lifts us up in his own triumph and raises us to a foretaste of his glory.  Why this emphasis on suffering?  Suffering is not the only theme in the Psalter.

We bring the substance of our own lives to the Psalter and offer it to Christ to be transformed by him.  It is all matter for sacrifice.  But since life on Earth is what it is, we all have plenty of trouble, plenty of suffering, plenty of misery.  We have our joys too.  And we should not omit to offer them to Christ and unite them with his joys.  But I insist on the importance of bringing him our sufferings because it is precisely these that he wishes to transfigure into his purest joys.  After all, the real joys of life do not come when we supernaturalize our trifling little human successes with an act of pure intention.  We enter into true joy through the center of our own nothingness.  We find true happiness by dying, because our truest happiness belongs to Heaven and we can only enter Heaven by dying to the things of Earth.  It is quite normal, then, that the theme of suffering in the Psalms should lend itself very readily to contemplative union because “through many tribulations we must enter into the Kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:21)

But, finally, here is the deepest reason of all for the intimate connection between the cross and contemplation.  It is a theme that comes before us more than once in the Liturgy of Passiontide.  Christ said, “Unless the grain of wheat, falling into the ground, die, itself remaineth alone.” (John 12:24)  It is by his passion and death that Jesus gathers to his heart the sons of God, those whom his father has given him, of whom not one shall be lost.  It is “when he is lifted up that he draws all things to himself.”  It is in his passion that he wins them all for his own, and earns the right to offer them all to his father and raises them all into the life of grace and glory.  It is by dying for us that Jesus has drawn us all into the triumph of his resurrection.  All this is set before us with a clarity that is as beautiful as it is terrifying, in the unwitting prophecy of the High Priest Caiphas: “It is expedient that one man should die for the people and that the whole nation perish not.  And this he spoke not of himself, but being the high priest of that year he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, and not only for the nation, but to gather together in one the children of God that were dispersed.” (John 11:5-52)

That is why the cross of Christ is the key to the Psalms.  The mystery of the Mystical Body, as Saint Augustine so often insisted, is central to the Psalter and essential for its proper use as prayer, and the texts we have just quoted show us the connection between the cross and the Mystical Body.  Hence it is from the tree of the cross that all the other mysteries in the Psalter bud forth and spread out before the gaze of the contemplative, and once we have entered into the mystery of Christ’s death, the resurrection and ascension into Heaven are assured us.  Indeed, since the mystery of Christ’s death is the mystery of unity of his mystical body, by entering into his death we are helping him to “draw all things to himself.”  When we are most intimately united with him by love and hidden in the “secret of his face” we are in the truest sense apostles. (Psalm 30:21)  Those who exercise the greatest power, in the communion of saints, are those whom the Lord has “hidden in his tent from the wrangling of tongues.” (Psalm 30:21)  I am not here talking of exterior silence or of a vocation to an enclosed order, but of the interior silence of the mystic, in no matter what walk of life he may happen to find himself, for it may happen, and it should happen, that even one who has to preach and teach should remain protected from the inanity of vain speech, should keep his heart a sacred sanctuary for the word of God, hidden in the urn of contemplation like manna in the ark.  There is more than meets the eye in this mystery which the Psalmist speaks of as the “wrangling of tongues.”

The “wrangling of tongues” symbolizes the confusion that was sent down by God upon the builders of Babel, who, seeking to scale Heaven with a structure of their own devising, were darkened and scattered in a division of tongues. (Genesis 11:7)  Babylon, the city of division, the city of those who “love themselves unto the hatred of God,” (Saint Augustine, De Civitate Dei, XIV, 28), was born in a curse of tongues and the church, the city of union, the city of those who love God unto hatred of themselves was born of the gift of tongues.  The Holy Ghost was poured out at Pentecost in tongues of flame, and made the apostles speak in all languages in order that men might be drawn back into union and that the division, laid open at Babel, might be closed again and healed in Christ and in his peace.  For there is only one language spoken in the City of God.  That language is charity.  Those who speak it best, speak it in silence.  For the eternal word of truth is uttered in silence.  If he is uttered in silence, he must be heard in deepest silence.  And his Spirit, the Spirit of Love, is also poured out into our hearts, proceeding from the Father and the Son, in an everlasting silence.

The Psalms are more than language.  They contain within themselves the silence of high mountains and the silence of Heaven.  It is only when we stand at the bottom of the mountain that it is hard for us to distinguish the language of the Psalter from the tongues of this Earth: for Christ must still perforce travel among us as a pilgrim disguised in our own tattered garments. The Psalter only truly begins to speak and sing within us when we have been led by God and lifted up by him, and have ascended into its silence.  When this is done, the Psalms themselves become the Tabernacle of God in which we are protected forever from the rage of the city of business, from the racket of human opinions, from the wild carnival we carry in our hearts and which the ancient saints called “Babylon.”

The liturgy of Heaven is a most perfect harmony which, like the music of the spheres, sees song transfigured into silence.  The Psalter is the prelude to that liturgy.  A prelude is a real beginning.  We who chant the Psalms are standing in the courts of Heaven.  That, indeed, is our chosen testimony.  It is the Christian vocation: to begin on Earth the life and liturgy of Heaven.  Saint John in his Apocalypse describes the songs of the four-and-twenty elders and of the blessed spirits.  Their liturgy is full of echoes of the Psalter.  Theirs are the same themes for theirs is the perfect liberty which the Psalms foreshadow.  They sing of the great mercy of God their liberator, and in doing so they burn with glory because they see and love him as he really is.  We have already entered with them but obscurely, into this mystery.  We have tasted the wine of their wedding feast paid out to us in droplets in moments of our own Earthly liturgy.

The wine of the Psalter and the wine of Heaven are the same, and they are ours, because whether in Heaven or on Earth there is only one chalice, and that chalice itself is Heaven.  It is the cup Jesus gave to his disciples on the night when he said to them: “With desire have I desired to eat this Pasch with you.” (Luke 22:15)  There is one mystery in the kingdom of Heaven, which is the light of that kingdom, replacing the sun, moon, and stars.  It is the light also of the Psalter and of the church on Earth, though it shine in darkness.  Its light is wine.  It was of this wine that Jesus said: “I shall not drink the fruit of this vine again until I drink it with you now in the kingdom of my father.” (Matthew 26:29)  He had just chanted the Psalms of the Hallel with his apostles.  He knew his blood would flow like silence through our Psalter.

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