Not long ago, we participated in a three-day workshop here. Sister Lynn Levo, a specialist in human relationships, walked us through the highs and lows of human relationships. She was very good and we hope to have her back.
At one point, she mentioned that 99 percent of intrapersonal communication is nonverbal. All through life, most of what we "pick up" comes to us beneath the wavelengths afforded by words. Indeed, she said, we do "get it." Nonverbal communication -- those signs and portents conveyed through body language, the changed or charged atmosphere of a room, a shooting star, a view of the ocean -- gets far more across to us than do words.
I was reminded of the Dom DeLillo novel "White Noise" and its theme of the ceaseless onslaught of "waves" -- radio, TV, the phone, advertisements -- all hitting us from all sides day and night, supposedly communication all we need to know. DeLillo wonders if it, in fact, does communicate anything of worth. We are adrift and lost in a widening sea of information that is getting us nowhere and there is no way to shut it off.
I live in a Trappist monastery. Whereas there are places on this earth that have been set aside, at the cost of billions, to scan the heavens for extra-terrestrial life, we set our lives aside in the search for God. Maybe we catch a glimmer every now and then. I am not sure.
I live more on hope than seeking concrete evidence of the divine. A lot of this life has to do with being still, and waiting. It involves a different kind of cost. But we are not immune to the enticements, the ravages, of white noise.
One example is analysis. Any passage of Scripture can be placed under the fine and scrutinizing lens of scholarship. It is dissected through the tools of biblical and literary criticism, drawn from the myriad fields of theological and philosophical traditions -- some very old and some very new.
A text can be thrown into the arena and wrestled with by feminists, atheists, believers of assorted traditions, and, really, no one emerges as the winner. There are no lasting or convincing insights. Just the questions, the revisions, the constant going back to the drawing board.
It has gone on for centuries, at the expense of what we can dream of and see with eyes and hearts basked in the delight of the mystical.
But all the while, something else has been going on. Or at least I think, I hope, it has. Something to save us from our nit-picking brains.
It is written that we were/are made in the image and likeness of God. I like to ponder the truth that we may somehow see with the eyes of God. As Raimundo Panikkar was fond of saying, God has chosen to see through us.
In other words, we rely heavily on the mind to secure some sense of God. All the while, God is within us, looking as we look, seeing the world through our hearts and eyes. We cannot make an object of God for our viewing. But we can marvel at what we see and how God may be seeing through us.
And that seeing encompasses far more than words can convey.
The same week that Lynn Revo was here, a group of high school students spent a night and day in our retreat house. They came from the Galloway School in Atlanta. They come every year. There were about 12 of them and I spoke with them the night they arrived.
I introduced myself and then asked them to share with me their backgrounds. They were delightful -- easy to be with, very friendly and interesting. We sat in a circle and they seemed happy to be there.
Among the 12 there was a fascinating array of beliefs, faith traditions, cultural traditions. Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam spoke through the kids. What amazed me is how accepting the kids were of each other, and how interested they were in monastic life.
I shared with them a few salient points about this life. They were especially interested in my beliefs on religious pluralism, interfaith marriage, the place of women in the Catholic tradition, the attitude of the official church on same sex marriage, women's rights, homosexuality. Heavy duty stuff for which there are no easy, pat answers.
I tried to respond, giving the official line but then stressing a more pastoral approach. They acknowledged the reality of how complex life is, and how there are very few answers.
But that did not seem to matter in the room that night. I looked about them and told them that I believed that God is real, and that whatever language we may use, God comes through our respective cultures and traditions.
God is there, in our struggles, in our questions, in the many ways that we see and grasp the world.
I thought to myself that the world that the kids will soon enter as adults will be a challenging one, filled with contradictions, disappointments, hopes and frustrations. Many of these they will tackle with the mind -- with questions, arguments, riddles upon riddles.
I hope they do not give up hope. They are so young, and full of promise, and the world awaits what they can give to it.
As they grow, there will be that 99 percent. Nonverbal communication. It is not white noise, but the very life of God, the God who pours beauty, goodness, truth and forbearance into this world.
There is so much mystery, cloaked in the beauty of this life, that we can never capture it with words. Yet it exists, infinitely larger than our attempts to speak it, catch it, keep it. It holds us. We cannot hope to hold it, to possess it.
I bank on that 99 percent. For whatever reason, God chose as a prime medium nonverbal communication. Libraries cannot hold it. Computers cannot compute it. Radios cannot tune it in.
But it is everywhere, like an eternal song, drawing us in with its beauty and promise. It is the source of the deepest hopes of the human -- and its ultimate fulfillment.
Father James Stephen (Jeff) Behrens, O.C.S.O., serves at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 2625 Highway 212 SW, Conyers. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.