Family or loved ones waiting beside someone on life support or - as in the corona crisis – not allowed to be beside them but waiting for news at a distance – as long as there is breath there is hope. However close the inevitable may be, it is another age, another world away. But when it comes, and the last breath is drawn, when there is no next inbreath, we enter the summum silentium of death. The great silence.
In monasteries this refers to the silence monks are supposed to observe strictly after the night prayer. It’s not unknown, however, for monks to get on zoom or chat with someone in the community after the great silence. With death, however, there is no choice, silence can only be observed. We can’t cheat death. And it is shocking how powerless we are. Like children who think they can get what they want by insisting, by charming, by crying, by threatening, we finally give up and admit we are defeated. What is gone is gone.
However much we replay conversations with the dead we will never again hear or see them as we did. Photos, old letters, personal objects we treasure are all meagre consolation and after a while they become impediments to the new relationship that is being formed in the tomb that slowly evolves to become a womb.
The unyielding, uncompromising silence of non-communication, the failure to make contact, to know what the dead person might be seeing or feeling – if anything. The silence of wondering if they care – if they are anywhere or in any kind of existence in which they could care about those who miss them. Eventually the grieving process allows the bereft to accept the obvious and the inevitable. Albeit with another weight in their heavy heart to carry, they move on. As we die into the death the summum silentium shows signs of life. Green shoots from dead soil.
This doesn’t mean that messages from the dead are getting through on a busy network but that the silence becomes deeper. We become better able to listen to the silence without populating it with our desires and fears and imagination. It becomes simple presence. Simple but more intensely present than anything we thought was real before.
Inbetween the lines of this pandemic and the painful, not meaningless disruption it is causing, we should be able to hear this great silence. If we don’t have one, or if it has fallen into disrepair, this is the time to start or re-service a spiritual practice. It is time to see how necessary for survival is the silence of things. The silence which empowers life through death.
Here at Bonnevaux I have noticed on my walks how much more present and friendly the birds and animals seem. I imagine this is my projection. It is I who have changed, not them. But who knows? Maybe it is after all, all about relationship, not just observation or being observed. It is time to start Lent again.