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Surrounded by Infinite Silence

a reflection by Gene Marshall

Religion, if it is true religion and not a hoax, expresses Awe. The stories of the Bible and other ancient religious writings were written to express Awe, and they were remembered because they did. So what is Awe? To answer this question, I must simply tell the truth about what Awe is like in my own life—what it means for me personally to confront the truly Awesome. It does not require a classical religious story in order to express Awe. Awe can be expressed in very ordinary scientific-sounding stories.

Brian Swimme has helped me to construct the following story.1 It is just a story, but it is a true story, and it is an Awe story. I am outside on a very dark, clear night lying on my back on a cot looking at the stars that fill the night sky. I realize that these stars were here long before I was born and will be still burning long after I am dead. I grip the sides of my cot as I contemplate the vastness of this scope of time. I also realize that what I am seeing is also spatially vast. I am looking out into my galaxy of a hundred billion or more stars. I am on the surface of this big ball, Earth. "Up" means to me away from the center of Earth. But I could just as well consider the direction I am looking as "down"—that I am being held up against the Earth by the glue of gravity and that I am swimming among the stars and planets of my home galaxy.

Perhaps you are already feeling the Awe expressed by my story, but there is much more Awe. Some of those dim points of light that I see are whole galaxies like my own. There are billions of them. Some of them are so far away that it has taken the light many billions of years to reach me. Seeing those galaxies is like traveling back, back, back in time, 10 billion, 12 billion years. If I could continue traveling back I would finally come to that point in time/space where the entire cosmos began, the Big Bang. I am certainly Awed by the realization that all space and time, all the laws of physics, all energy and matter; the Earth, life, humanity, and I myself began with a trillion degree hot moment of explosion.

Using my always curious human imagination, I choose to push back one more step. What is before that Big Bang? What is before all time? What is before every before? And the answer that I actually hear is: "Infinite Silence." It all emerged from the Infinite Silence. Now that is surely Awesome.

And I am a relationship with this Infinite Silence. I am lying here on my cot in my back yard looking out through this black night sky all the way to the Infinite Silence. Now this is Awesome. My cat is lying on my lap and she does not see any Infinite Silence, or any galaxies for that matter. She is an amazingly capable and surprisingly conscious being, but she does not possess my capacity for Awe. Now that is also Awesome to me.

My cat does not care what is Awesome to me. I cannot share my Awe with my cat. But I can share my Awe with you, with those of you who are willing to be truthful about your own experience of human life. And my sharing of Awe is not cramming religious opinions down your throat. I am simply calling your attention to what you already know or can easily know for yourself—can easily see with your own inward eyes.

The Infinite Silence is not simply that boundless Void before the Big Bang but also a constant companion in the living present. The following poem expresses this awareness.

The Infinite Silence Speaks
through every rustle of tree leaves,
through every singing bird,
through every sound of any kind,
and through the silent spaces between the sounds.

The Infinite Silence is Void and Darkness
but also Fullness, a dazzling backlight that shines through
every gleaming tree, every shimmering squirrel
and surrounds every human being
with a halo.

 

1 Brian Swimme, The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos (Orbis Books: 1996)