When Words Fail – The End of Morality

When Words Fail – The End of Morality


I can think of two experiences where words fail: before the presence of God and in the presence of deep shame. The first is too great and too wondrous for words, the second too bitter and painful. Both are essential for our humanity if it is to be lived to the fullest. They represent not only the boundary of our vocabulary, but also the boundary of our existence. I have stood by the bedside of hundreds of persons at the time of death (particularly in two years as a hospice chaplain). It is generally a quiet place. There are words of parting, but finally – silence. I have also heard the confessions over long years of priesthood. Sometimes silence enfolds the tears that are the only voice that shame can offer.

Words interpret. Words express and communicate. But words fail when the experience transcends interpretation and when any expression or effort to communicate would only distort and reduce what has come to be.

We say with joy, “It’s too wonderful for words!” But this, I think, falls short of what I am describing. St. Thomas Aquinas had an experience of God in his last days, after which he refused to return to his task of writing. “I cannot. All that I have written seems like straw to me,” was his only explanation.

Orthodoxy holds that the highest and most fundamental form of prayer is found in “hesychia,” “silence,” or “stillness.” But quiet is not at all the same thing as hesychia as prayer. For the silence of hesychia is a silence-in-communion. This communion is deeply related to both of the wordless experiences described earlier. The silence of shame is brought about by the experience of the broken self. True silence in the presence of God is brought about by an encounter with God Himself. The former may very well be a prerequisite for the latter.

In The Ladder of Divine Ascent (Step 4), by St. John Climacus, we hear:

Terrible indeed was the judgment of a good judge and shepherd which I once saw in a monastery. For while I was there, it happened that a robber applied for admission to the monastic life. And that most excellent pastor and physician ordered him to take seven days of complete rest, just to see the kind of life in the place. When the week had passed, the pastor called him and asked him privately: ‘Would you like to live with us?’ And when he saw that he agreed to this with all sincerity, he then asked him what evil he had done in the world. And when he saw that he readily confessed everything, he tried him still further, and said: ‘I want you to tell this in the presence of all the brethren.’ But he really did hate his sin, and, scorning all shame, without the least hesitation he promised to do it. ‘And if you like,’ he said, ‘I will tell it in the middle of the city of Alexandria.’

And so, the shepherd gathered all his sheep in the church, to the number of 230, and during Divine Service (for it was Sunday), after the reading of the Gospel, he introduced this irreproachable convict. He was dragged by several of the brethren, who gave him moderate blows. His hands were tied behind his back, he was dressed in a hair shirt, his head was sprinkled with ashes. All were astonished at the sight. And immediately a woeful cry rang out, for no one knew what was happening.

Then, when the robber appeared at the doors of the church, that holy superior who had such love for souls, said to him in a loud voice: ‘Stop! You are not worthy to enter here.’ Dumbfounded by the voice of the shepherd coming from the sanctuary (for he thought, as he afterwards assured us with oaths, that he had heard not a human voice, but thunder), he instantly fell on his face, trembling and shaking all over with fear.

As he lay on the ground and moistened the floor with his tears, this wonderful physician, using all means for his salvation, and wishing to give to all an example of saving and effectual humility, again exhorted him, in the presence of all, to tell in detail what he had done. And with terror he confessed one after another all his sins, which revolted every ear, not only sins of the flesh, natural and unnatural, with rational beings and with animals, but even poisoning, murder and many other things which it is indecent to hear or commit to writing.

And when he had finished his confession, the shepherd at once allowed him to be given the habit and numbered among the brethren.  Amazed by the wisdom of that holy man, I asked him when we were alone: ‘Why did you make such an extraordinary show?’

That true physician replied: ‘For two reasons: firstly, in order to deliver the penitent himself from future shame by present shame; and it really did that, Brother John. For he did not rise from the floor until he was granted remission of all his sins. And do not doubt this, for one of the brethren who was there confided to me, saying: “I saw someone terrible holding a pen and writing-tablet, and as the prostrate man told each sin, he crossed it out with a pen.” And this is likely, for it says: I said, I will confess against myself my sin to the Lord; and Thou hast forgiven the wickedness of my heart. Secondly, because there are others in the brotherhood who have unconfessed sins, and I want to induce them to confess too, for without this no one will obtain forgiveness.’

…Do not be deceived, son and obedient servant of the Lord, by the spirit of conceit, so that you confess your own sins to your master as if they were another person’s. You cannot escape shame except by shame. It is often the habit of the demons to persuade us either not to confess, or to do so as if we were confessing another person’s sins, or to lay the blame for our sin on others. Lay bare, lay bare your wound to the physician and, without being ashamed, say: ‘It is my wound, Father, it is my plague, caused by my own negligence, and not by anything else. No one is to blame for this, no man, no spirit, no body, nothing but my own carelessness.’

The stories in St. John’s Ladder are often extreme, but they make an unmistakable point. Repentance is the path to knowledge of God and salvation. But the extremes he points to make another point: repentance is far greater than mere moral effort. The promise to try harder, to work more, to be better can themselves be little more than an effort to avoid the shame of our failures. They “lessen the blows.” How can we say we will try harder? If we are honest with ourselves and with God we will admit that our efforts have failed before and will likely fail again. Our promises are words that stand between us and the silence of shame.

We can only go to that place of silence voluntarily. No one can take us there, nor should anyone force us (the extreme treatment in the Ladder is only done with the robber’s permission). But at the heart of our wordless shame is the good God who accepts us, embraces us, and clothes us with His own righteousness. He will not crush us nor use our shame against us.

Hesychia, true silence and stillness of heart, presses beneath the noise of the soul and its moral protests of promised improvement. I will not improve. I will not do better. I will be still. And know.