I was thinking about old Roy Rogers again, and about a man keeping his word. These days we are so surrounded by noise everywhere you go, especially if you keep your car radio on while you drive, that you can hardly escape words, most of them cheap and many of them empty. They are simply fillers, like the lines that used to be at the bottom of newspaper columns when they didn’t have enough news to fill the whole column: “The potato production of the country of Azerbaijan was four million pounds last year…”
We get into trouble when we forget that words are supposed to count, that empty words are useless. We go down pathways into gossip or complaints. When I overhear people talk, which I cannot avoid most of the time if I’m out in public, it seems like ninety per cent of what I hear falls into one of those two categories. They say that a lot of speech is simply to enable people to make connections. Perhaps. But I’m unsure about the need to talk about or against others that seems to occupy so many people I overhear.
I am reminded of sayings from the ancient monks known as the fathers and mothers of the desert. These folks went out from cities like Alexandria and Antioch into the desert, mostly to find peace and quiet, because they knew instinctively that the noise and jabber of the cities was a huge distraction. They reasoned that, if you wanted to experience God you had to get rid of the distractions. Abba Moses the Ethiopian, a formidable physical presence, said it well: “It is impossible to have Christ continually in your heart without silence, humility, and unceasing prayer,” and he knew that the second two qualities were, in large part, a result of the first one.
The bishop of Alexandria, one Theophilus, came out to the desert to visit. Monks urged Abba Pambo, one of the best known of the desert fathers, to prepare some words to “edify his soul in this place.” Whereupon Pambo replied, “If he is not edified by my silence, there is no hope that he will be edified by my words.” This may be hard for some people to understand, particularly those who think that the only way we establish contact and rapport with others is through our speaking. But Pambo had a point; his life was his major speech. So it should be with us.
I was deeply impressed by a small book that came out during the latter days of the Communist regime in Russia. It is entitled Talking About God is Dangerous, by Tatiana Goricheva, who was a member of one of the many underground movements that were quietly reviving Christian faith in that bruised and tormented land. Goricheva’s journey from atheist intellectual to intelligent Christian is itself worthy of consideration, but the sentence that burned into me is this, on page 91 of her book: “Every word must be a sacrifice – filled to the brim with authenticity. Otherwise it is better to keep silent.”
I believe this, even if sometimes I too get caught up in the circuit of speech that leads to a surfeit of words. You know when you are not authentic, when your own words ring hollow and you are just filling space with noise. Then it is best to back off, assess the situation, discover why you feel the need to prattle on, and recede into silence. In silence you will find the authenticity that is so important to communicate, if words are to bear true meaning for you and for others.