Space and silence

by Terence MacNamee

2017 is being celebrated in Germany and Switzerland as the “Reformation Year”, for 1517 was the year when Martin Luther nailed his 95 propositions to the door of the Wittenberg church and thus started the process that led to the religious division of Western Europe.

This week the newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung did an interview with the German and Swiss Reformation “ambassadors” tasked with putting out the message for the year. The German “ambassador” is Margot Kässmann, the well-known German Lutheran bishop. The Swiss “ambassador” is Christoph Sigrist, and it should be noted that Swiss Protestantism has its own heroes, Zwingli and Calvin, and has always been a more severely “reformed” church, notably eschewing all ornament in its places of worship.

Asked about what abiding changes the Reformation had brought, Sigrist chose to emphasize this very aspect. “For one thing, reduction to empty space. The church space free of altars and pictures created a place where man could communicate undisturbed with man and with God. The positive experience of the filled empty space has been retained to this day by the mind of the city. So for example the empty public space of the Sechseläutenplatz” a square in Zurich, “is a social resource”.

The empty space Sigrist praises is not a space of silence, mind you, except if you slip into the church when no-one is there. No, it is very much a language-intensive space, a space of talk. With pomp and ritual gone, Protestant Christianity has has to rely on preaching, Bible-reading and hymn-singing. In the intervening centuries, the Catholic wing of Christianity has managed to do a wearisome amount of preaching too.

As a matter of fact, religion in the Western world has got to a point where it is just about all talk. Clergy of all denominations are trained to preach, and preach they do, often to gradually emptying churches. Clergy have also become media-savvy, like these two “ambassadors”, adept at discussing contemporary issues in a politically correct manner, different from the triumphalism and self-righteousness of past pulpit oratory.

Yet are they not losing sight of something? Religious tradition in the West has been not just the endless talk of the preacher, but also the meditative silence of the monk. In this it finds common ground with the religious traditions of Asia, where monks also sit and take their walks in precious quiet. Religion needs not just to make room for man with empty space, but to make room for God – whoever He may be – with silence.

Silence is indeed the perfect analogue of empty space. They go together. And in the forlorn emptiness of that space and silence, beyond preaching and all forms of eloquence, God might still welcome the weary seeker.