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Some Christians, Buddhists and, to a lesser extent, Muslims have chosen silence for centuries, and there are rooms like those available in the Mingaladon monastery set aside for those who wish to explore its potential in Buddhist and Christian monasteries around the world. For the religious, silence offers a way to ponder and listen for the divine, the unsayable and inexplicable. Christians commonly choose silence because they believe in a god who speaks. They need to be silent to create a space for him—always at the risk, as in Shûsaku Endô’s novel, recently filmed by Martin Scorsese, that the silence remains unfulfilled, an abyss. Silence is also, the religions teach, personally improving. The Prophet Muhammad told Muslims that, “One can greatly beautify himself with two habits: good manners and lengthy silence.” For Buddhists, silence teaches devotees to master their passions.

Silence is often a retreat from worldliness, and the inauthentic. Ignatius of Antioch, an early Church father, advised Christians at Ephesus: “It is better to be silent and be real than to talk and not be real”–foreshadowing by around 1,800 years Mark Twain’s advice that it is better to keep one’s mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. It is also a way to avoid doing ill. One of the admonitions that comprise Buddhism’s eightfold patch is to practise samma vaca, or “right speech”, which scriptures define as abstaining from false, slanderous, harsh and idle speech; all major religions counsel their adherents to choose their words carefully and use them sparingly. Religions can supplement the self control required for such abstinence in ways that may be helpful or oppressive; if the faithful cannot speak, they can ask no questions, preserving the authority of their superiors.

Many forms of religious practice make use of silence; some, such as that of Quakers, may consist of little else. But there are particular places where it really lives and breathes: in wildernesses like Mr Hempton’s; in some monasteries. Benedict, the sixth-century monk seen as the father of Christian monasticism, did not explicitly include silence in his rule, but in the cloistered life speech is widely seen as something requiring permission or exigency. Today monks who live by the Rule of St Benedict in hundreds of (normally small) Trappist monasteries speak only sparingly.

Thomas Merton, an influential American Trappist who was ordained in 1949, held that the only words required of a priest were those of the Mass. This disdain for speech (which caused him to agonise about his own copious writings) stemmed in part from his belief that God’s words were beyond the scope of “human argument”. Some things are mysterious, and not subject to analysis. One must be silent to understand them, and it is better to say nothing than to try to explain them. As Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian philosopher, put it in his “Tractatus Logico-philosophicus”: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.” It is not power that compels silence here, but the inadequacy of any attempt at communication [πηγή]

«Should the church adapt to particular cultures, or should it maintain an approach distinctively its own? In Christian theology, that is a question of “inculturation.” Since the Council of Jerusalem — when the apostles, Jews by birth, clashed over whether new Christians should be held to Jewish law — the history of Christianity has turned on questions of inculturation. The brilliance of “Silence” is that it shows how these questions increase and multiply. The young Jesuits seem to favor inculturation, adopting peasant dress, taking the sacraments directly to the people and calling their hut “the monastery.” A magistrate — a figure akin to Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor — tells Rodrigues that Christianity cannot take root in the “swamp” that is Japan. When Rodrigues finally meets him, Ferreira concurs. The converts? They are breakaway Buddhists, the apostate priest says; they worship the “Sun of God,” not the Son of God. Those martyrs, dying upside down in the pit? They didn’t die for Christ, he tells Rodrigues, they died for you»

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