This past August, I left home. Actually, I left college, but it sure felt like leaving home. I went to Europe with the resolution not to return until I had found some new direction, had settled a theological quandary or two, and had found the courage to begin a new chapter in my life.
My roaming landed me at Taize, an ecumenical monastery set amidst the rolling fields of Burgundy in France. There I met wise Sister Bep, to whom I poured out my heart. For a long time, I had been struggling to articulate a year I spent abroad in India in 2005. There I had been confronted with a death and corruption so inexpressible that it tied my tongue. Even coming back to a community that knew and loved me the next year, I found myself unable to speak about my experience.
Sister Bep had the cure: “What you need,” she said, “is more silence.” She put me in a room with a bed, a desk, and a lamp, and told me to stay there and write for one week. In the thick silence of that room (and of my whole two months in Europe), I got my voice back.
Bounding into the Theology Department back at Walla Walla University several weeks later, I told one of my professors, “I feel like all this time I’ve been shut up inside, mute. But now it’s as if my tongue has been loosed.”
A brief reading of Ezekiel 24:15-27 is enough to really curl one’s stomach. “The word of the Lord came to me,” begins the passage, but ironically, it is a word announcing silence: “Son of man, behold, I am about to take the delight of your eyes away from you at a stroke; yet you shall not mourn or weep, nor shall your tears run down. Sigh, but not aloud; make no mourning for the dead…” (vs. 15-17). God slays Ezekiel’s wife, an affliction given for a parable to the people of Israel, who would soon experience a similar, though more communal affliction, in the exile. In that day, the Lord said, they were to do as Ezekiel had done when his wife was taken: they should make themselves ready with turbans and with shoes on their feet. The people would groan inwardly, but not weep. Perhaps they would not be able to weep.
According to the lesson this week, meekness means to “endure injury with patience and without resentment.” If that is true, then we have no guarantee that the silent response of Ezekiel and the party of Israel was true meekness. How many of us do not feel resentful when God takes away the “yearning of our souls” (vs. 21), even if, like Ezekiel, we cannot express it? The patience of Ezekiel was involuntary-a sort of cruel, forced inner quietude. Perhaps he and all of Israel could be compared to those meek ones described in the Beatitudes, “which are not persons who are submissive, mild, and unassertive, but those who are humble in the sense of being oppressed.”1
I’ve often heard meekness described in very unattractive terms like, “soft,” “compliant,” “submissive,” and “tame.” Are we really to prize that timidity, which, according to 2 Timothy 1:7, God has not given us a spirit of? If, as believers, we are to harmonize triumphant verses such as 2 Timothy 1:7 with the call to meekness, then we must somehow discover both a boldness in the meek and a meekness in the bold. In the crucible, we must learn a new language: one that is obedient to the season of silence, and yet still strong in “power, love, and soundness of mind.” This sort of silence must allow us both to express and to move past our resentment.
In my own time of silence, I found the last verse of 1 Corinthians 13 to be especially helpful for this purpose: “Now these three things remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” In times of hurt, sometimes the greatest injury we suffer is to our faith. Other times it is hope that eludes us. But love is left as our ever-present tool because it is an act we can perform even when faith and hope come up empty. When our tongues are dry and faith seems like an impossible dream, we can still proclaim the Kingdom with trembling hands-a bold sort of meekness indeed.
Sometimes as believers we are tempted to approach the world with reckless, even offensive, enthusiasm. But true meekness wrought in silence enables us to address the crucibles of others with honesty and compassion. Our afflictions become a point of contact with a world that has lost its hope and tragically, in some cases, its ability to love.
Back in my professor’s office, my loosed tongue was received with joy: “Your experience reminds me of Zechariah’s,” he said. Luke’s Zechariah, like Ezekiel, was made speechless for a time. I am curious what Zechariah thought about as he watched Elizabeth’s belly grow with child and expectation. We aren‘t told, except that at the end of the season both Ezekiel and Zechariah found themselves able to speak words of healing: for Zechariah, “His mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God.” The end for Ezekiel is particularly moving: “On that day your mouth will be opened to the fugitive, and you shall speak and be no longer mute. So you will be a sign to them, and they will know that I am the Lord” (vs. 27).
Could the loving vision of a prophet born for God’s people have sustained Zechariah through his silence? Perhaps. And perhaps acting with compassion as a parable to the people purified Ezekiel’s speech for the right time. In that light, it’s worth asking what will come off our own tongues when, after long silences, we speak again. Will we be able to proclaim the fruits of meekness learned by loving boldly through the crucible?
Here is a passage that has brought me through many dark days:
She was rather melancholy, but she hoped as much as she could. And when she could no longer hope she did not stand still, but walked on in the darkness. I think, when the sun rises upon them, some people will be astonished to find out just how far they have got on in the darkness.2
Perhaps love is the darkness through which we walk silently when hope has faded. It takes us to the Kingdom.
Notes and References
1. Donald A. Hagner et al., Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 33A (Dallas, Texas: Word Books, 1993), 92.
2. George MacDonald, The Lady’s Confession (Minneapolis, Minn.: Bethany House, 1994), 42.
Rachel Davies recently graduated from Walla Walla University, College Place, Washington, where she majored in theology.