“Silence of the Season” by Mark W. Harris

 First Parish of Watertown – December 9, 2018

Opening Words – from The Phantom Tollboothby Norton Juster

 “Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven’t the answer to a question you’ve been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you’re alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully.” 

1stReading from The Scarlet Letterby Nathaniel Hawthorne (Chapter 3)

“Hester Prynne,” said he, leaning over the balcony and looking down steadfastly into her eyes, “thou hearest what this good man says, and seest the accountability under which I labour. If thou feelest it to be for thy soul’s peace, and that thy earthly punishment will thereby be made more effectual to salvation, I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner and fellow-sufferer! Be not silent from any mistaken pity and tenderness for him; for, believe me, Hester, though he were to step down from a high place, and stand there beside thee, on thy pedestal of shame, yet better were it so than to hide a guilty heart through life. What can thy silence do for him, except it tempt him–yea, compel him, as it were–to add hypocrisy to sin? Heaven hath granted thee an open ignominy, that thereby thou mayest work out an open triumph over the evil within thee and the sorrow without. Take heed how thou deniest to him–who, perchance, hath not the courage to grasp it for himself–the bitter, but wholesome, cup that is now presented to thy lips!”

   The young pastor’s voice was tremulously sweet, rich, deep, and broken. The feeling that it so evidently manifested, rather than the direct purport of the words, caused it to vibrate within all hearts, and brought the listeners into one accord of sympathy. Even the poor baby at Hester’s bosom was affected by the same influence, for it directed its hitherto vacant gaze towards Mr. Dimmesdale, and held up its little arms with a half-pleased, half-plaintive murmur. So powerful seemed the minister’s appeal that the people could not believe but that Hester Prynne would speak out the guilty name, or else that the guilty one himself in whatever high or lowly place he stood, would be drawn forth by an inward and inevitable necessity, and compelled to ascend the scaffold.

2ndReadingfrom Life Togetherby Dietrich Bonhoeffer (adapted)

“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to [the] Word, so the beginning of love for[others] is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that . . .  not only gives us [the] Word but also lends us [an] ear.

So it is [God’s]  work that we do for our brother [and sister] when we learn to listen to [them]. Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.

Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he [or she] who can no longer listen to his brother  [or sister]will soon be no longer listening to God either; [they] will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too.

This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words. One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he[or she] be not conscious of it. Anyone who thinks that [their] time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God [or others], but only for [themselves] and for [their] own follies.”


 My mother always said, “if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything.” She was an introvert, who was a very quiet, unassuming person. She represented that old nugget, “silence is golden.”  There was a silent, calm when she was in the room that felt comforting and reassuring. Yet being a good Yankee, silence for her also represented the truism that we don’t talk about things that are unpleasant, (like sex, death, or racism)and so if there was conflict in the family, she would try to avoid it.  In a word, my mother represents the two great poles of silence.  First, the ability to sit in quiet contemplation before a winter storm swirling outside the window, or indeed any season’s beauty, and reflect upon the meaning and direction of our lives. And second, our silence when we know something wrong has been done, but we are too afraid to confront it. While in my family, it might have been my father’s drinking, or my sister’s disabilities, nothing was said, and we just acted as though everything was normal.  I am sure there are subjects in your family that bring silence.

I have a very simple enduring memory of this holiday season that was created by my mother.  We had a very loud household.  My father was a big person in several ways, but drinking often brought heated conversations, and sometimes expressions of anger all against machines, and thankfully not people.  My brothers were loud, too, sometimes in battles with my sister. But at Christmas time, my mother always set up a Hummel creche in our front living room, which was a more attractive sitting area, then the back living room, which was where the blaring TV, and lounging children resided most of the time.  Hummel’s were German, porcelain figurines that my mother had a large collection of.  All the lights were turned off in this room, with the exception of a frame light that illuminated a picture of Jesus. In addition she would open a Bible to the story of the nativity from Matthew, add some red holly, and position the basic nativity figures nearby – Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and a sheep or two. I suppose that sounds effusively sentimental, but in truth it provided a wonderfully calming effect in my chaotic childhood, when I went into this room after dark. These were times of silence and contemplation in an otherwise loud and turbulent life. I loved going in there, and asking myself, who was this person?  What am I supposed to be doing with my life? And then dwelling in the silence beyond silence that soothed my soul.

We usually do not associate silence with the Protestant Reformation churches that we are one of the prime exponents of.  After all, Protestantism placed its religious emphasis on the Word, that is the Words of the Bible where all truth was to be derived.  That was then reflected in services that specialized in the Words of the preacher, who gave as much as two hour sermons twice a Sunday in Puritan services. It was all spoken words in response to the duties we were to follow in order to be good people, but there was little if anything about silence.  We are doers of the words, rather than hearers only sounds like a positive thing to be, but it also means that we may not take the time to listen and reflect upon the words. We are so busy trying to do good that we don’t reflect upon what it means to be good. 

Silence was associated more with Catholic traditions, such as the silent prayer and meals in the monasteries, which most Protestant churches rejected, as reflected in the sale and dissolution of such properties and ventures under Henry VIII in England.  Now they lay in broken, beautiful ruins in such places as Fountains and Whitby Abbeys in the north of England, where I once lived. But even in churches prior to the Reformation, parishioners could not read, and were thus dependent upon either the silence of absorbing the mass, or perhaps even more meaningfully, the power of wordless music. More than most, Unitarian Universalists rejected silent liturgical elements in favor of more and more spoken words, so the hymn sandwich of words alternating with sung words of hymns became the norm. Even the time for prayer usually did not include silence because many were uncomfortable with silent meditation. We had one intern here, who was quite uncomfortable with silence, and didn’t know quite what to do with it when he was leading worship. I suggested he time it out by repeating to himself silently the 23rdPsalm and the Lord’s Prayer, but that was still using words to mask the silence.

The worship service for UUs is reflective of our lives, too.  Who spends time silently contemplating things or meditating or praying?  I barely have time to get my work done, and if there is extra time I am going to go to the Y or see a movie.  Yet most of us can’t bear to be with silence.  We listen to a book or the radio in our cars.  Even in our homes we have a dog or cat because it gives us someone to talk to if we are alone.  I have a relative who cannot stand to be in the house by herself, and so the TV is blaring at all times.  Why do we always need to be engulfed in sound?  It is even worse in public settings.  I have a friend who used to say, “It’s so loud I can’t hear myself think.” The music is so loud at Fenway Park, I often say I am not going to go to a game anymore.  I can’t hear the sounds of the game like the crack of the bat, or the thud of the ball. Muzak in malls and noise everywhere means we don’t let ourselves be alone with ourselves.  We don’t get to hear the silence of the seasons, like how silent it is as the snow falls, or wordlessly observe the leaves falling gently from the trees, or even feel the silent oppressive humidity pervade the atmosphere in summer. 

The poet Robert Bly was once sitting in silence at a lakeside cottage. He was feeling depressed as he looked out on the tree lined landscape of hanging limbs. He observed” It may be that these trees I see have consciousness, and this desire to weep comes from them.” We must give space for quiet, reflective times so that we can feel what we feel, work things over in our minds, and find what is most important. We must realize that our lives need to know the weeping that Bly felt in his observation of the leaves.  My colleague Jane Rzepka writes that “within that silence one finds the depths of sorrow as well as satisfaction, within that silence one finds all immediacy as well as timelessness, and within that silence one finds all liveliness as well as peace.”

Part of that experience of deeply felt silences exposes those other silences in our lives that might be spoken or revealed, but are not because we are afraid, or too hurt to reflect upon them.

What greater example of keeping silent in literature is there than Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter,who becomes pregnant and has a baby by an unnamed perpetrator.  Here in her first appearance on the Puritan scaffold she opens herself to gawking and taunting, and yet does not name the hypocrite minister, but neither does he come forward and say that it is he who is her apparent companion in sin. He seems to see it as Hester’s responsibility, and does not have the courage to break his own silence that he is the perpetrator. He puts her in a situation where she has to name him, while standing in front of him. This seems reminiscent of those who are the victims of sexual abuse.  How difficult it is to break the silence when a culture does not want to be exposed for its hypocrisy, or it values something more, like the authority and power of the priesthood, for example, over protecting the children of the Catholic church. What is heartening is that we live in a time of exposing sexual abuse, as exemplified by the #Me Too movement. Azar Nafisi reminds us of the personal and social need to not remain silent when she says,

“I no longer believe that we can keep silent. We never really do, mind you. In one way or another we articulate what has happened to us through the kind of people we become.” 

In the book Silence, A Christian History, Diarmaid MacCulloch, reminds us that all institutions create their own silences by exclusions or shared assumptions.  Assumptions about what institutional preservation requires often supersedes individual needs. Sometimes there is shame or fear because an institution has not lived up to the standard of truth it espouses, and the one who points out that pain often suffers the consequences. Life is not comfortable for the little boy who shows that the emperor has no clothes.   MacCulloch names several examples in Christian history where the church develops an amnesia about the truth.  We know of the scriptural passages where Paul says that women should not speak in church.  In fact there were many women leaders in the early church, but later history was written by men and it became a male-dominated institution, and those female leaders disappeared from history. We purposefully forget or expunge scandal in our histories.  I tell my students my perception that Universalists were embarrassed by the large numbers of adherent they had to spiritualism, and also that one of their major founders had evangelical visions of God, but these elements of their history were conveniently ignored or forgotten because rational UUs could not appear to speak to God or the dead. This is also true of those scientifically oriented UUs who saw a way to perfect human beings in their advocacy of eugenics.  “Never heard about that”, the most prominent UU historian of the last generation said. Do you want to know the truth, or be silent and cover-up the truth? 

Some years ago when I used to teach at my seminary Starr King School, my class was often visited by Hannah Tillich.  I remember her well, because she always said I was a good teacher. She was the elderly widow of Paul Tillich, one of the great theologians of the 20thcentury, but a noted philanderer. One might even refer to his behavior as heartless promiscuity, as he had countless affairs while married to Hannah, even embarrassing her at parties by bringing the women along. How often did she have to remain silent despite his behavior, because she was married to the great Paul Tillich.  One could wonder the same thing about Coretta Scott King. It was once said that one definition of a saint is someone who has not been researched well enough.

What is true of individuals is also true of churches, and MacCulloch names three instances of institutional silence that reflect justified shame. These include the concealment of child sex abuse, the relationship of Christian churches to the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews, and worldwide attitudes towards slavery.  We can identify different kinds of damage that silence does. The sex abuse scandal is still with us, as new revelations come from Pennsylvania and beyond.  This should come as no surprise.  It is what happens when those in privileged positions justify their exercise of power to protect their institution. Yet this exercise of power must also be placed within the context of the silence or denial about human sexuality. Clergy are forced into an unnatural celibacy, and then take out their frustrations on vulnerable children.  Further, the church cannot even admit that at least one third, if not more, of their clergy are gay, which is not to imply that there is any connection whatsoever between being gay and being abusive. 

The anti-Judaism is something we are each familiar with in personal ways. I remember parishioners in my first congregation who were working at a Rummage Sale. One of them complained to me that one of the buyers tried to Jew her down to a lower price for an item. This was a small off-hand comment that exemplifies the larger world wide hatred for Jews. How did I respond? I was a new minister. Could I risk offending a parishioner, especially because I was afraid of conflict, and was afraid for my job. Somehow I managed to summon the courage that perhaps it was not the right word to use.  Silence in response to times when people attack others in some way takes courage on our part, because each time we risk someone attacking us. This fear leads to silence. The German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoeller who was imprisoned by the Nazis, was able to overcome this fear, and  is credited with these words repeated often: “First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.”

A selective memory about these issues has been something that characterized the churches views of slavery. Historically we have been quick in the North to condemn Southerners for their institutionalizing of slavery, while forgetting that slavery was common here until the late 1700’s. Furthermore what continues to be exposed is the relationships many Northerners , including Unitarian mill and ship owners, had to the economy that made slavery so successful. Our predecessors used the fuel of slavery to make their economy hum with the turning of the looms in the textile factories. A story was told that the bells on the Unitarian church could not ring out in protest of the Fugitive Slave Act because they were stuffed with cotton.  Telling the truth about these events in history lead us down a path where we can truly live our espoused values. So the integrity of one who tells the truth, and often gets hurt or rejected by the community, becomes the yardstick for the whole community to live by.  Audre Lorde, who wrote our responsive reading today once said: “I began to ask each time: What’s the worst that could happen to me if I tell this truth?” Unlike women in other countries, our breaking silence is unlikely to have us jailed, “disappeared” or run off the road at night. Our speaking out will irritate some people, get us called bitchy or hypersensitive and disrupt some dinner parties. And then our speaking out will permit other women to speak, until laws are changed and lives are saved and the world is altered forever.”

We have seen how silence can hide the truth. Adrienne Rich once said, “Lying is done with words, and also with silence.”  We can also see how silence can help us find the truth, and then speak it or live it with our lives.  A good example of this is the Quaker tradition.  Quakers sit in silence until the spirit moves them.  When I was in graduate school in New Hampshire, I attended the meeting in Exeter, and found it difficult to sit in silence, sometimes for the whole hour. We could all learn from this important time of reflection on our lives. Quakers were among the first in our country who heard truth emerge from the silence when they spoke out against slavery.

In the reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us of the value of silence in the community.  Life Togetherwas written after the Nazis decided to close the seminary where Bonhoeffer had trained.  It is a reflection of what community life can really be, and is a primer in how we can create those deep relationships in our own communities.  Bonhoeffer was martyred by the Nazis, and executed in 1945 at Flossenburg Concentration Camp.   He tells us that the first service we can perform in a community such as ours is to listen to each other. Too often, he says, people in community are talking when they could be listening. Hearing another’s story can lead us deeper into a relationship, can help us hear another perspective, and can also prepare us to learn from the silence between us. We are all looking for an ear that will listen to us, hear our pain, and truly know us. This is what Bonhoeffer suggests we can do for each other. Some of us who always want to make sure we are heard, would gain much from listening to others. Becoming listeners to one another leads us to truly listen to deeper sounds beyond one another’s words, or another’s beating heart. The sounds of this season are best heard when we replicate that experience I had as a boy. Go into the darkness, and sit with it. Let the quiet of the world embrace you. Come to know that there are deeper sounds beyond hearing.  Maybe music will lead you there, or maybe the silence itself will be your music.  You may hear cries, or you may hear laughter. Or you may hear the sound of silence. What is it like to sit with a sleeping baby? What is it like to hear the breathing of the universe. Sit in darkness this season, and perhaps you will discover its joy, or its pain, inviting you deeper to the spirit within.

Closing Words – from the theologian Isaac of Nineveh –

 “Love silence above all things, because it brings you nearer to the fruit that the tongue cannot express . . . and then from out of this silence something is born that leads to silence itself.”