Never did an advertising campaign put its finger on the deep pulse of a culture like the company who sponsored this line, famously spoofed by Count Rugen in The Princess Bride: “If you haven’t got your health you haven’t got anything.”
In whatever profession, everything about our lives—our stuff, our liturgy, what we eat, what we wear, how we pray, what we keep or throw away, how we do community life—speaks our values and sometimes loudly, but none are perhaps more revealing than what happens when we get sick, and what we do with our silence.
Those of us who are able and strong are so only for the present; in our own customary we say that illness and death have the capacity to illumine the deepest meaning of our lives and vocations for us and for our brothers and sisters. That light, of whatever quality, will come to the surface regardless, and this dynamic works both with those who are ill and with those who care for them.
This inescapable “truth-telling” of our inmost being appears also, and especially, in the existence, quality, and use of our silence. In his Rule, St Benedict enjoins that the monks “diligently cultivate silence at all times, but especially at night.” Thus there is no speaking after Compline, the last office of the day. When we pray Compline each night, we are making an essay at facing our own eventual death, offering ourselves trustfully to God and to a sleep from which we may or may not awake. Death is the ultimate hand-over, the ultimate relinquishment of the power of self-assertion, of all motive power of any kind whether of thought or action, and of all power of self-justification or defence. Silence is a practice at this, especially at night—at not answering to the compulsion to assure our own existence by comment, explanation, humor, or what have you.
As with illness, the space created by this letting-go offers us the opportunity truthfully to face ourselves in our powerlessness and insignificance, and to rest, not in the imagined importance of ourselves or our words, but in God’s love.