Crisis as an opportunity to deepen the experience of silence based on the spiritual paths of Charles de Foucauld and Frances Siedliska.
Instead of an introduction
Crisis are present in all cultures and communities. Everyone experiences some form of crisis with suffering. But for Christians crises – relating to stages of purification through extreme experiences in the spiritual life – can lead to growth towards fullness. This dynamics of growth, that is the preponderant action of God, more and more to span the life of a Christian, also has a personal element, depending on individual predispositions. The indescribability of these experiences brings the Christian into a state of silence: not only the silence chosen and maintained as a space for meeting with God, but also the silence that arises as a result of God's action.
The two people whose life is the basis of this talk have features in common as well as differences. Both Charles de Foucauld and Frances Siedliska were born in the mid-nineteenth century and end died in the early twentieth. Their families had a similar position in society. Count Charles de Foucauld was the son of Francis Edward de Foucauld (vice-inspector of state forests) and Elizabeth de Morlet. His family was one of the oldest in France and had an enormous fortune. It is also necessary to emphasize similarly difficult experiences each had from the earliest period. Charles had to deal with the death of his parents, although this is only one of many various difficulties he had had.
Frances was the daughter of a wealthy Polish squire, Adolf Siedliski and Cecil née Morawska, and she was a granddaughter of Joseph Morawski (director of the Revenue and Treasury Government Commission). Thanks to such a families position and wealth, Frances had a rounded education. Though she didn’t – physically - lose her parents her childhood was blighted by emotional lack that generated no less serious difficulties. Another similar element to both is the choice to follow Christ as a life with Him in Nazareth, among ordinary people.
The differences of course include nationality, gender and the specific type of vocation they each followed. De Foucauld, before choosing to live in solitude in the Algerian mountains of the Hoggar desert in, had spent several years with the Trappists. Siedliska become the founder of a new religious family: The Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth. Both our heroes were led by God on a demanding road with many crises. In the end they both passed what – in the theology of spirituality - is called a dark night experiencing its purification. In my presentation I would like to highlight one aspect that accompanies the purification crisis, namely - silence.
The reality of silence in spiritual life is considered indispensable. To find within oneself the God that communicates the Word, man needs to shut down the flow of external stimuli in order to be able to perceive a more subtle content. The outer silence is necessarily helps in finding the inner silence. However, silence is not only the choice of ascetic action (not to speak, to see, to do); but silence is also an integral part of human life in general. Human existence, in a deeper sense, takes place in solitude (therefore also in silence), which even the closest relationships cannot remove. An individual does not have the tools to fully communicate himself - his inner content - to another person. A man or woman remains alone also in the decisive moments of life – both their birth and death. Despite the presence of others, communication in these moments is not possible. Crises are part of this dynamic. Thanks to mindfulness, the culminating moments that life brings us can and should become a path that leads us to a deeper acceptance and a wider understanding of the gift of silence. This is prove to us by the lives of the saints.
The way of purification, as we understand it in the theology of spirituality, prepares a Christian for full union with God. This process takes place in everyday life, through small events and larger crises. To start with, human activity is dynamic but, given time, it gives a way to God's action. Active purifications undertaken on the initiative of the individual, although good and necessary, are not enough to achieve the highest degree of purity and sublimity, hence the necessity of additional passive purifications: the senses and the spirit. According to the classical mystic approach, these are extremely difficult experiences, sometimes lasting for years, but their fruits cannot be overestimated. Inability to explain these experiences can force the Christian to the use of the language of symbols and comparisons when trying to clarify what really happens within a person. Unfortunately, most of this experiences remains inarticulate, and are available only to those who have followed a similar course themselves.
The experience of purification and silence on the examples given
By analyzing the writings of de Foucauld and Siedliska we see that the development of their spiritual life progressed by ‘normal’ dynamics, from cognitio (intellectualis) to experimentum (mysticum), against a background of silence. A cursory reading of their writings, however, may lead to the erroneous conclusions that their experiences were not mystical because were simply due to their low spectacularity. But as the definition reminds us, the essence of mystic consists in the action of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in divine mode as well as in the perfect submission of the individual. Extraordinary and outstanding mystical phenomena can sometimes accompany it, but they are not a condition.
In the earliest stage of spiritual life (although in the case of de Foucauld it does not coincide with early age) in both characters we see a very dynamic process of active purification, consisting in a firm choice of what is more difficult, or more demanding, in all available spheres of life. Already at this level, we are dealing with entering silence and discovering its value as a space for prayer, and as the inability to tell about the path to those who has waited for such explanations. And so, for teenage Frances, the suffering inflicted by her family's members forbidding her to receive the sacraments or forcing her to a lifestyle she did not want, resulted in the her silence and a sense of alienation, that she endured with patience. In the case of Br Charles, we can see, his decision to quit the military service after a radical conversion was met with sharp remarks trying to criticise this choice. The silence they each learn through this suffering became an important experience.
As deepen the spiritual life, more and more to happen. Siedliska was guide by the hands of her spiritual director Fr. L. Lendzian OFM Cap, who informed her about the will of God. Frances should became a nun. The path of the evangelical counsels, in the beginning was in fact a private proffesion. The next 10 years was among the most difficult stages in her life: an attempt to establish a new religious community with a few elderly tertiaries, a trip to Rome to obtain the papal blessing as a visible sign of God's will, and finally moving to Italy permanently. All this was immersed in the strange visions of Br. S. Rembiszewski OFMCap.
The descriptions in her letters from that period indicate dramatic problems for the young Foundress. Entangled in a pseudo-spiritual relationship, she realizes that instead of getting closer to God, she was moving away from Him. It was following a 30-day retreat that a radical change occurred. She wanted to build a spiritual Nazareth, not a quasi-mystical one, and she ended the link with both Capuchins. The thing that interests us the most here is the fact that we only have hazy accounts of the event as everything was covered with silence at that time. We can conclude from a letter that Siedliska gave the two Capuchins all the respect and gratitude she had for them, while covering theirs shortcomings, mistakes and abuses.
In the life of Br. Charles of Jesus, we find a similar episode related to his stay in the Trappist order, where, according to the words responsible for his formation, he is a referred to as a perfectly promising monk. However, what is happening inside him, that he calls ‘the insistent search for the last place’, is disappointing and painful for both sides. He is seen as overbearing, stubborn and disobedient. In trying to explain the unexplainable, Charles becomes incomprehensible to everyone, from the confessor to the superiors of the community. His determination takes him on a completely unique path that he could not share with anyone. In his notes there is not even a hint of complaining or blaming anyone. Hidden unspeakable riches, which will acquire great importance over time, were synonymous with an extremely courageous and total dedication to Christ.
The silence that God teaches these two through the cross is the ability to pay full attention, not to difficult events and sufferings, but to the persons and relationships that occured. But the main and first relationship that fills silence is closeness to the Father, in an attempt to entrust all to Him in full, following the example of Jesus the Silent Lamb. God's silence in the person of Jesus also contains a deep kind of consolation (con-sole what’s mean not alone), in pain, and in spite of pain.
Another example of deepening the understanding of silence in a crisis situation is the period of passive purification. The spiritual life of Siedliska, with the appearance of a new spiritual director, Fr. A Lechert CR, undergoes an extraordinary transformation which she describes as the grace of a new life. A process took place in her soul and mind to get rid of dependencies that had developed over the years of Capuchin spiritual direction. Frances Siedliska entered a path of living by faith, struggling hard with her own weaknesses, and accepting the purification that this brings. Giving up old habits causes strong fears, she lived as if without foundation, suspended in the air. The grace of contemplation threw the light of knowledge into her interior so brightly that she clearly saw the discrepancy between pious desires to be with God and a nature inclined to comfort, exaltation. She also was tempted against faith. She describes her state as breaking and the death of the soul and repeats in amazement the words how to express and describe what is happening.
The process becames more and more subtle over time, destroying the remnants of intellectual and spiritual pride, and unmasking the appearance of depth. Although there was constant contemplation in the upper part of the soul, purifications are still went on in the lower part. The sufferings are so great that the classic of mystic compares them to a squeeze of the soul. Siedliska describes it in the same way: such a squeeze in the soul, the heart in the press... the only embrace of Jesus. This expression - comfort only with Jesus, - again indicates the inexpressibility of spiritual experiences. Any attempt to explain the inability of words at the same time points out the extraordinary effect of silence. The soul, cut off from communication, turns completely to God - One who understands, and there it tightens its bonds: a transforming union.
Life of Br. Charles shows a similar dynamics. The passive purification he experienced lasted for many years. He called himself a man in the night of the spirit. And the solitary stay in the desert, a serious illness, an unsuccessful attempt to establish a community and find at least one companion – these failures changed the conqueror's life for a humble journey in silence following the footsteps of Jesus' beloved above all. It means accepting the cross of failure of an unsuccessful life, consent to a negative evaluation in which his prudence and sobriety were doubted. Because of the wordless power of silence that transcends boundaries hearts and minds, those who came into contact with de Foucauld, at that time, were captured by the heart, imbued with divine light, simply struck by the greatness of this hermit. De Foucauld pointed out that it is silence that will give God the opportunity to build a Kingdom within a human being. For that to happen, one has to cross the desert and stay in it, to be freed and purified from all that is not God. As a result of this process, Charles de Foucauld comes to being happy in a place everyone else would describe as devastating. The deep peace that floods his soul is the culmination of entrusting himself to God in a silent and loving yes. As his writings show, he no longer saw a threat in his nothingness, he only saw God who leaned over him.
It is impossible to present the whole issue in such a short presentation and indicate all references to the topic of silence in the life of the Foucauld ans Siedliska. However, we can risk a saying that it was the deep understanding of silence in the spiritual paths that, thanks to God's grace, saved them from extreme depression that could have destroyed themselves and the works to which they were called.
To conclude, let us quote the thought of Diadoch from Fotic: ‘When the door of the bathhouse is open, heat quickly escapes outside. Likewise, the soul, when it wants to talk too much, even if it only says good things, is distracted by memory that flies through the door from which so much escape. Therefore, the soul is now deprived of appropriate concepts and exposes without order to the crowd of its thoughts, for there is no Holy Spirit to save it from illusions.’
Is it possible to tell a meeting about things that go completely beyond what we understand? By introducing silence into deep space, it gives you the opportunity to start a different life that focuses on the most important things.