Encountering Silence

Karl Rahner, S.J., undoubtedly about to say something extensive and profound. In German.

I was a sophomore in Theresa Sanders‘s “Systematic Theology” course. Over the course of the semester, we read (at least most of) Karl Rahner’s Foundations of Christian Faith–difficult yet exhilarating work that solidified for me that I had made a fitting choice in switching majors from International Security to Theology. It was a semester that I had wanted to have while in college, a semester that took what I had thought I knew, turned it upside-down and inside-out and given me back something more mysterious, perilous, and beautiful than I could have hoped for. It was my first time immersing myself in the thought of a single theologian (although we did spend some significant weeks at the end of the term with the much needed critical eye of Rosemary Radford Ruether’s Sexism and God-Talk). It was my first real engagement with grown-up theology. Soon afterwards I sought out more Rahner, and I was surprised and intrigued when I came across his small book, Encounters with Silence–a series of prayers both theologically rich yet intimate and accessible. And I think that it was with these prayers that I finally began to really understand Rahner’s theology, and I found myself invited to reimagine what “doing theology” might look like.

A few days ago I picked-up the book again for the first time in years, and Rahner’s words shook me again–as powerful as they had the first time, if perhaps in a way differently colored by the intervening years of study, prayer, and life. Early in the book, Rahner, speaking to God’s infinite silence, asks:

Are there any titles which I needn’t give You?
And when I have listed them all, what have I said?
If I should take my stand on the shore of Your Endlessness
and shout into the trackless reaches of Your Being
all the words I have ever learned in the poor prison of my little existence,
what should I have said?
I should never have spoken the last word about You.
Then why do I even begin to speak of You?
Why do You torment me with Your Infinity,
if I can never really measure it?
Why do You constrain me to walk along Your paths,
if they lead only to the awful darkness of Your night,
where only You can see?
For us, only the finite and tangible is real and near enough to touch:
can You be real and near to me, when I must confess You as Infinite?
Why have You burnt Your mark in my soul in Baptism?
Why have You kindled in me the flame of faith,
this dark light which lures us out of the bright security of our little huts
into Your night?
Heather Greenwell, Grotto, Pine Ridge, South Dakota, 2004
Heather Greenwell, Grotto, Pine Ridge, South Dakota, 2004

I won’t spoil the book’s ending. A contemplative reading Encounter with Silence is, itself, an experience I won’t deny anyone. But I will give you a hint: God never does say anything.

Except perhaps in the movement of the questions themselves, in their apparent transformative impact upon Rahner in his prayer, and in the conversion of mind and heart to which they invite his readers–a turning to God that is engendered by silence, by devoted prayer, and perhaps even by good theology.


Andrew Staron is an assistant professor of theology at Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, West Virginia.