Fluent in Silence

In the Quaker meeting I went to on Cape Cod last Sunday, nothing much happened. Not a word was spoken. No one took off a coat. No one even coughed. The closest thing to any liturgy came when, every fifteen minutes or so, in an effort to keep the room a bit above freezing, an old man with a long white beard, denim overalls, and sensible work gloves grabbed a piece of oak and fed it to the wood-burning stove in the middle of the meetinghouse.

Quakers are famous for their pacifism, and for rejecting each of Catholicism’s seven sacraments—baptism and Holy Communion included. But what seduces me is their silence, their sense that the deepest meanings always brim out over the formulas we construct to contain them, that only silence is a large enough cup for the really real.

I usually try to sit still and empty my head of thoughts at these meetings, but this week I found my head full of J.D. Salinger. When Salinger followed The Catcher in the Rye with Franny and Zooey and other Glass family stories, critics complained that he was veering off into Eastern mysticism. But when he veered off into silence after The New Yorker published his last story, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” in 1965, many simply declared him nuts. It was as if he owed us, and since he wouldn’t pay up in words, we would punish him with pathology.

With all due respect to the Gospel of John, the beginning was mute. Not so the aftermath. We live today in a word-saturated world. Words scream at us in huge type on The Huffington Post and, thanks to cell phones and wifi, they have invaded the sanctuary of taxicabs and buses. Newspapers and magazines may be dying, and perhaps even the printed book, but the word is alive and well and multiplying over cellular towers and T1 lines. A mother confessed to me on an airplane last month that her thirteen-year-old daughter had run up 20,000 text messages in her first month with her new iPhone. (Luckily, she had an unlimited plan.)

As memory gets cheaper and social networking sites proliferate, fewer and fewer of these words go unrecorded. The distance between idea and publication has never been slimmer. Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, we are all scribes now. We record for posterity thoughts that used to pass even our own notice. Is nothing ephemeral any more?

Salinger, it seems, saw all this coming. His retreat in the early 1950s from an apartment on Manhattan’s East 57th Street to the Cornish, New Hampshire, house where he died last Wednesday has been widely read as a retreat from celebrity into solitude. But it was more plainly a retreat from the published to the unpublished word. This is the retreat that so many have found so unforgivable. Refusing celebrity is almost as hip as demanding it and, as many have observed, Salinger’s refusal of fame only served to ramp his up. His retreat from publishing, by contrast, served to prove him incompetent.

The Quaker meeting I attended on Sunday has been gathering since 1657. Nowadays only a dozen or so people attend every Sunday, pretty modest compared to the tens of thousands that flock each weekend around the likes of Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, and T.D. Jakes. These megapreachers’ megachurches boast live bands, jumbotrons, and theater-style seating. In this meetinghouse, the seats are hardwood pews and the most advanced technologies are the oil lamp and the wood-burning stove.

Out back is a colonial era cemetery whose headstones are so small that my daughter once asked, “Are these all children?” No, I told her. The headstones are small because Quakers feel no need to record anything more elaborate on them than their names and the dates of their births and deaths. The experiences that filled these parentheses are no less remarkable for remaining unremarked.

In the Western monotheisms, God is famous for speaking. Jews, Christians, and Muslims are “people of the book” because their God spoke and that speech was written down in scriptures. But even in these traditions God is as reclusive as Salinger. If you stack up every word God is said to have spoken in the Bible, they probably don’t amount to much more than what Holden Caulfield says in The Catcher in the Rye. If there is a God, He or She or It seems to know that words are overrated. This is not a truth writers come by easily. That Salinger not only came by it but preached it unceasingly for over half his life evinces, in my view, not neurosis but sanity.

Though I flirt with silence, I have a romance with words. I am a writer after all, and a reader. So I hope there are more Salinger books to come. If the creator of Franny and Zooey and Seymour did in fact spend much of his fifty years of solitude putting words onto pages, I hope his heirs go the way that Jung’s did with the recently released Red Book (though I’d prefer not to have to wait so long). Still, I will be surprised if anything Salinger has to say in print after death is as eloquent a critique of modern American life as what he has said since he decamped for New Hampshire.

When I attend Quaker meeting, I usually leave early. Sometimes people will feel moved to speak after forty-five minutes or an hour, and I typically want to get out safely before words start to colonize the silence with clichés about peace, love, and understanding. But last Sunday for some reason I stayed for over an hour without fear. Happily, no one spoke. The only sounds in the meetinghouse were of the overalled man rising to stoke the fire and then sitting and rising and sitting again, until all that could be heard among our morning souls was the rush of cold air over the crackling oak.

Stephen Prothero teaches at Boston University and writes books, including God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter, published by HarperOne. His latest is Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections).