Better to Light a Candle (of Silence) than to Curse the Darkness (of Language)

If a picture is worth 1000 words, how many words is silence worth?

If a picture is worth 1000 words, how many words is silence worth?

Does language always limit the way we talk about, think about, or even pray to, God?

This question has been on my mind for the past few days.

This past weekend I attended a service at a nearby Episcopal Church. The liturgy came from Enriching Our Worship, a contemporary, inclusive language resource approved for use in Episcopal Churches. For the most part it was poetic and lovely. However, one phrase during the Eucharistic prayer startled me — and not in a good way.

Glory and honor are yours, Creator of all,
your Word has never been silent;
you call a people to yourself, as a light to the nations…

“Your Word has never been silent.”

I was stunned. It felt like a slap in the face to the practice of contemplative prayer.

Is this prayer implying that God lacks the power to speak to us through silence, or values silence so little that it is always overrun by the noise of the “Word”? Or perhaps it is implying that God’s Word (i.e., Christ) never prayed in silence?

Because on the surface, it appears to be saying one if not both of these things.

Now, I can do a kind of interpretive dance around this. It’s not meant to be anti-contemplative, it’s just an affirmation of God’s loving word spoken throughout all times and all places. God’s Word is Christ, and Christ is never silent, because Christ always calls us to reconciliation and renewal. 

In other words, blah blah blah.

This reminds me of how defenders of gendered language in liturgy make their case. When we call God “Father” this does not mean God is male, in a human biological sense. And when we call humans “mankind” that’s not meant to exclude women either. Yada yada yada.

Now, I doubt that the author(s) of the Enriching Our Worship Eucharistic prayer were setting out to write something that seems to attack contemplation. They were just trying to make a poetic statement abut the pervasive presence of God’s Word, Christ, in our lives. But by doing so, they inadvertently said something that sounds like bad theology (at least to me).

Maybe the idea that God’s Word is never silent is not a big deal to most people. But as someone who believes the problems in Christianity mostly stem from its rejection of its own contemplative heritage, language like that is stunning in its implication. Likewise, a lot of people don’t understand the importance of inclusive language, mainly because they enjoy and find comfort in traditional language, gender bias and all. But to others, such kind of language leaves them feeling excluded, or unhappy because it appears to exclude others.

My point is this: whether we’re talking about something as obvious as gender bias or even something as seemingly innocuous as “Your Word is never silent,” language — even the best, most traditional, most poetic language — always seems to fail us when it comes to talking about, or praying to, God. God is greater than language, so when we try to talk about (or to) God, we are trying to fit something infinite into the finite container of human speech and syntax. And the result is always messy.

So what should we do? Should we give up on talking about God? I don’t think so, although arguably that’s what atheism is all about. When an atheist says “I don’t believe in God” he or she is saying, by implication, “God is not worth talking about.”

A better approach, what I believe to be the more contemplative approach, is to continue to talk about God, since God is love, and justice, and mercy and forgiveness, and we live in a world that is starving for all these things. But we need to talk about God with great humility and non-attachment. Our language about God will sooner or later fail.

What we believe reveals God may inadvertently conceal God. Our human sin — our capacity to hurt one another, oppress one another, impinge on each other’s freedom — will creep into even the most mindful ways of talking about God. Knowing this can be an important step toward refusing to let our human language of God become an idol.

Remain Silent. Stay Calm.

Remain Silent. Stay Calm.

The essential key, of course, is silence. “Silence is praise” muses the Psalmist; and Elijah encountered God in “the sound of sheer silence.” Silence does not make language obsolete or unnecessary, but it does help us to hold our language lightly. This not only can keep us from turning our language into an idol, but can also help us to be forgiving when we hear God-talk that is limiting or exclusionary or oppressive.

In other words, I know that “Your Word is never silent” is a limiting way to talk about God. But when I pray in silence, I am reminded that I do not need to let that kind of language impact my own spirituality. As the Quakers say, “better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

Perhaps this blog post has been a bit heavy on the cursing-the-darkness side — so I’ll be silent now. For silence — praying contemplatively — is a way of lighting a candle for God.


Is there language about God that you find limiting or exclusionary? Or language that you think is important to retain? Leave a comment to share your thoughts on this topic.

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Author of Befriending Silence, Christian Mystics, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Catechist. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

A word from Carl: Thank you for posting your constructive comment. The goal of this blog is to encourage people to pray. Therefore, I invite you to pray before you submit a post. Please note, I will delete any comments that are offensive, abusive, off-topic, or spam.

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11 thoughts on “Better to Light a Candle (of Silence) than to Curse the Darkness (of Language)

  1. As I read along with your thoughts, I reflected on my own journey with Inclusive Language. In seminary, a paper was failed if it wasn’t used. It makes sense to me now and it did then. The more I deal with the marginalized I see the power of words to hurt and destroy… To heal and to build up… Yet in the end, words simply fail… It is then that God speaks to me in the silence of contemplation or simply being… A walk in silence through the woods, along the seashore, or in the mountains often draws me closer to God. Visio Divina has become a very important part of my life as a writer, photographer, and simple Christ-Follower…

    When words fail, isn’t that often when God speaks the most clearly? As an old Rabbi once said, “God is very polite. God won’t talk if you are talking!”

    • You’re on the money. We must continually interrogate our language because, if we don’t, we run the risk of unwittingly speaking in ways that marginalize others, and usually those who are already marginalized. Yet in our attempts to redress wrongs, we can then create inverted models of oppression. I think failing a paper for no other reason than gendered language is excessive, although I understand the need to communicate to seminarians the vital importance of using language that includes rather than excludes. My anxiety about making inclusive language mandatory is equivalent to my fears about a new constitutional convention. Once we decide to rewrite our foundational documents, anything is possible. And knowing human sin, that “anything” will likely have all sorts of unsavory unforeseen consequences. I suppose I’m choosing the devil I know rather than the devil I don’t know (and since I have the privilege that comes with being a man, I have to admit that traditionally-masculine gendered language is not as offensive to me as it is to others). It’s a thorny problem. No easy answers. Which is why I always find myself taking refuge in silence.

  2. I do like your point about taking language lightly. Even our “best” language can only point to God — though I believe it’s also a vehicle God can (obviously) use to speak to us. I didn’t interpret the phrase “Your Word has never been silent” to mean any slam against OUR silence. Rather, I thought it just meant that God is always trying to reach us and always at work in us and in our world. I believe that OUR silence (along with following God’s personal guidance to us as individuals) is vital to minimzing the “static” that otherwise can keep God’s Word from reaching us.

  3. When the Catholic church changed phrasing of many parts of the mass a few years ago, i was deeply disturbed by the switch at consecration of the wine>sacred blood from : This is my blood shed for you AND FOR ALL for the forgiveness of sins”, to : ” . . .FOR MANY . . ”

    I asked for a conference with Father Kenny, and his counsel was rich. He said that it disturbed him too, but that I shouldn’t sweat the small stuff. He said he’d been around long enough to see several changes, and he was confident that he felt it would revert back to more inclusive language eventually.

    That is probably not so for the Episcopal rite, but I don’t hear the same message in their prayer. To me, it seems more like they’re saying that even in silence, the Lord speaks (and we hear)

    • Scotty, I’m assuming you’re saying that the word “God” itself is something you find “limiting or exclusionary.” I struggled with the word for many years. It’s so freighted with so much of human woundedness and wounding. I think I made my peace with it when I realized that everyone worships something — granted, many people just worship themselves, but many other gods can be identified, such as money, or fame, or sex, or guacamole, or nature … or love, or justice, or mercy, or the mystery that is behind all these things. I believe, out of my own experience in prayer as well as what I believe to be true in the testimony of others, that love, mercy, compassion, justice, all come from not just some impersonal force (à la Star Wars) but from a sentient source — in other words, when I gaze with faith into love, I realize that Love has eyes and a soul and is gazing back at me. I call this mystery “God” because I don’t know of a better word. Is it an adequate word? Absolutely not. Has it caused problems because of its association with masculinity, or with domination, or with repressive moralism? You bet. Still, I don’t know of a better word, so I keep using it. I’m not trying to defend God (or the word “God”) — I’m leaving this comment simply to say “I hear you” and to share with you why the word still works for me, even as imperfect as it is. For the good news, the word “God” may have so many problems, but the loving mystery to which it points is truly beyond all the limitations of our language, our thought, and our brutalities.

  4. It is so good to read this after so many years, to hear your voice speaking through your printed words. I have a different take. . .

    Theology is sometimes described as the least inadequate way to describe our relationship with God, and God’s relationship with us. Human language will ultimately fail to describe this relationship, but sometimes it is the best way to describe the indescribable.

    That said, the words from the prayer book struck me differently. Jesus is described as the Word in John 1, an active, creating presence. And while God uses words to create the world as an active, creating presence in Genesis, spoken words are not the only–or even the major–form of communication. About 85% of face to face communication is non-verbal–and listening is in silence is a powerful means of communicating love and support. That is how I view silence with God, both in listening and in receiving silence.

    Spoken words are one form of communication, but not the only form. Just being with active and present God, sharing silence, being together, is precious.

  5. Language bias and awareness are learned. You either learn inclusiveness as a natural part of the language you speak from the very beginning or you have to be taught it when you are old enough to understand the difference. To be fair though, discrimination is also a learned trait in most children. Context can also be an important and often overlooked aspect of language use. I have a really hard time with gendered language in religion, but I don’t often think twice about the use of “mankind” in most other contexts. I grew up within a somewhat conservative Baptist family. I also read a LOT, and I was comfortable with older books at a younger age than many of my peers. I never really took any note of gendered language, it was just how people back then wrote. No big deal. Until I went to college and found myself increasingly disinclined to accept the “Christian woman” ideal that seems to permeate much of conservative Christianity. Sometimes I have a hard time with the lack of female-inclusive wording in descriptions of God. I try to tell myself that it’s just because the writers were male and that they wrote what they understood. But that doesn’t usually change the fact that it makes me feel like I’m somehow less, just because of my gender. Gendered language in religious texts or commentaries tends to detrail my thoughts, but in a history book would rarely earn a second glance. I guess it can sometimes depends on the topic and how it’s being presented.

  6. Thanks Carl. Following your sound reasoning of making and idol out of language , I can say the same thing about Theology and non-silent prayer. Even of the written Word. Human language is a problem when it comes to describing or talking about God. This, however, sinful as we are, is a powerful communication tool. As long as we approach language with humility and deep understanding, I think contemplatives will be fine. Speaking from a place of compassion is the key.

    I will ponder your words for a little while. Have you read the Cyprian Smith’s book “The Way of Paradox?”