Henri Martin, "The Silence"

Henri Martin, “The Silence”

“Oh Lord, open my lips,” the first prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours begins, breaking the Great Silence. Oh Lord, open my lips. And my mouth will proclaim your praise.

The words recall the prophet Isaiah who, praying in the Temple, sees God:

I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, with the train of his garment filling the temple. Seraphim were stationed above; each of them had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two they veiled their feet, and with two they hovered aloft. “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts!” they cried one to the other. “All the earth is filled with his glory!” At the sound of that cry, the frame of the door shook and the house was filled with smoke.

Then I said, “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” Then one of the seraphim flew to me, holding an ember which he had taken with tongs from the altar. He touched my mouth with it. “See,” he said, “now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.” (Isa 6:1-7)

There is something unspeakable about God. Isaiah, who here is called to speak as a prophet to Israel, must first receive the ability to speak. A similar dynamic surfaces in the liturgy, which begins with a request that our lips might be touched with the ember of speech. Isaiah helps to order the liturgical moment, to unveil its shape, one in which the human being stands in the presence God. It is in the nature of the liturgy to echo the past like this: to read itself in the present through the past. Fundamentally, the liturgy remembers. It is a memory caught up in a dialogue with speech and silence.

Prayer, like theology, vacillates between confidence in its ability to discuss God and confidence in its inability to discuss God. To speak more technically, prayer takes part in both kataphasis (positive speech about God) and apophasis (negative speech about God). We know God, and we do not know God. It is not that there is too little for us to grasp; it is that there is too much. Everything understood is at the same time too vast to be really understood.

A voice says, “Cry out!” I answer, “What shall I cry out?
All mankind is grass, and all their glory like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower wilts, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it.
(So then, the people is the grass.)
Though the grass withers and the flower wilts, the word of our God stands forever.” (Isa 40:6-8)

The liturgy thoroughly invests itself in proclamation, and it does so by entering in to God’s presence and recalling what he has done. Drenched in Scripture – words of the past – the liturgy articulates its present. Scripture, then, is not perceived merely as part of a dead history. It is a history that deserves remembering. This is one of the primary ways that the liturgy involves itself in memory, a memory that is – as it were – called out of silence. The liturgy requires the presence of its mysterious interlocutor in order to be present to itself.

So there is much written on the liturgy and anamnesis, which is a peculiar sort of remembering: what is remembered is also fully present. Usually the past remains in the past. Christian prayer, meanwhile, is fundamentally located at the present crossway of the past and the future. But this is, while peculiar, already an extension and transfiguration of the way human imagining works – the human imagination is always struggling to comprehend the world in a complex relationship between what has been and what is, and attempting to grasp what might therefore be.

There are ways in which the ordinary dialogue between the past, the present, and the future become damaged. Trauma victims of all sorts – war veterans, abused children, assault victims, etc. – experience gaps in memory, flashbacks, dissociative episodes. PTSD is the most famous example of the symptoms of trauma, though in reality trauma presents itself complexly and PTSD is misunderstood even in its familiarity. Typical colloquialisms tend to characterize the type of damage seen here as the fundamental loss of one or several of the aspects of time. The traumatized cannot “move on” from the past, cannot be present to others, cannot imagine a future for themselves.

We tend to imagine it as if a normal quality of being human has been removed from the traumatized individual, as if some loss or lack were at work, but in fact normal has become amplified. The wound isn’t about having “less” of something so much as more. Someone with trauma experiences the past intensely, obsessively, invasively. He or she will often avoid “triggers” that force the past into the present. The horror rips apart any authentic sense of coherence, self-presence, safety. The present is articulated and understood in terms of the past, but it is a past that is fundamentally excruciating. Here is an anamnesis of terror rather than mercy.

We are always remembering. In trauma, we remember helplessly.

This helplessness, this immensity, is driven into darkness and silence. Who can remember what is too much to remember? Trauma is in some fundamental way unspeakable, even as it coerces its own expression. Both the injured person and the society of which he or she is a part find the injury unspeakable. Patterns of silence, of concealing, of horror that forgets, perpetuate themselves. Trauma is a dialogue caught up in speech and silence.

Much as Christianity has been the executor of unspeakable traumas, there is perhaps a way in which its fundamental mode of being is able to resonate with the survivor. There is perhaps a way in which it is possible to greet the damaged patterns with similar (and simultaneously dissimilar) patterns, mitigating the temptation to reject the experience of the traumatized out-of-hand or encourage self-condemnation. There is perhaps an opening here. One that does not extract Christians from responsibility, but rather intensifies it. The double-voiced cry of the traumatized – sounded and silenced – reverberates in the liturgy, which gives space to the cry and harmonically allays it with a new voice. Lord, open my lips.