Words are powerful. Beautiful, moving, and inspiring words motivate us to seek change, to become better versions of ourselves. Harsh, damaging, and derogatory words have the power to stop us in our tracks, giving us pause as to how we can continue on this path. We roll those positive and negative words we receive around our brains like they must be savored before they are digested; some we internalize and others we dismiss.
Personally, I tend to internalize the negative ones much more readily than the positive ones; they lay a bigger claim to my sense of self than I would like, and largely these negative words have been about my quietness. I’ve always been quiet, but to assume that my quietness is somehow an indication that I am disengaged, unhappy, or shy is to read my quietness all wrong.
Much of my life, metaphoric (and occasionally, literal) quietness was required of me by the church; women were not to speak, certainly about scripture and never from the pulpit. In some ways, it’s hard for me to speak because so much of my life was lived within the constraints of not being permitted to do so; I’m learning the way and striving to internalize those words that provide encouragement to the reality that my voice is something worth hearing.
A few weeks ago, I preached a sermon in which I used silence to convey the gravity and intensity with which I feel about the things I was preaching. After the sermon, people were complimentary and supportive, like any church that is raising up a future priest, but I was struck by how many people commented on the delivery of the sermon. For many in the congregation, the power of my sermon came not just from the words I said, but the things I left unsaid and the silence that I let linger over the church. It is so easy to forget that we need not fill up every bit of time we have with words, especially in the pulpit; it is so easy to forget that words may be powerful, but so is silence.
The sermon text was Pauline; the text lies at the beginning of one of Paul’s letters which contain one of most quoted scriptural references to women being silent in the church. Preaching Paul is always challenging, because it is Paul’s words that were used to silence me; gratefully, during seminary through course work, study, prayer, and friends, Paul has been and is being continually redeemed for me. I can hear Paul’s voice not as a demeaning, silencer of women, but as a passionate leader and evangelist for the crucified and resurrected Christ who cared deeply about many young Christian communities.
I’m grateful that I no longer hear Paul this way, but in this particular sermon and response, I’m struck by the fact that in proclaiming the good news of Christ through Paul’s words in the pulpit that day, I found power not in crashing through my experience of being silenced for so long by shouting about it, but rather resting in the quietness and silence that was forced upon me and making it my own.
A friend recently quoted Sarah Coakley in a letter in which he was discussing this very aspect of my quiet, yet powerful, nature, “The silence of contemplation is of a particular form: it is not the silence of being silenced. Rather it is the voluntary silence of attention, transformation, mysterious interconnection, and rightly and divinely empowered resistance: it is a special ‘power-in-vulnerability.’ Contemplation engenders courage to give voice, but in a changed, prophetic key.”†
It is not the silence of being silenced. This is my hope and prayer when people see and know me; I am not quiet because I have been forced to be or because I don’t have anything to say, I am quiet because I am paying attention.
†Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self. p. 84-85. Also have friends who quote Sarah Coakley in letters.
As an aside: One of the things that came out of the women’s march was the anthem, “Quiet”; this song struck me deeply with its honesty and openness. Particularly, the line, “But no one knows me / no one ever will / if I don’t say something / if I just lie still / would I be a monster / scare them all away / if I let them hear what I have to say. / I can’t keep quiet.” I know that fear, and I may be quiet, but I won’t stay quiet.