A prominent part of a Contemplative’s mystical gear is silence. Bernadette asserts that this is fourfold in nature: a silence from within; a silence that descends from without; a silence that stills existence; and a silence that engulfs the entire cosmos. As part of her newfound no-self awakening, a silence in which there is nothing also needs to be included. True enough, the path of silence constitutes an unfolding of the Unknown—a numinous quilt that enwraps itself around an earnest disciple in the Unborn. However, for Bernadette this path suddenly came to an abrupt end one day when she found herself engulfed in an altogether totally strange silence from which she would never emerge.
Down the road from where I lived there was a monastery by the sea, and on afternoons when I could get away, I liked to spend some time alone in the silence of its chapel…During these moments of waiting, I felt as if I were poised on a precipice or balanced on a thin tightrope, with the known (myself) on one side and the unknown (God) on the other. A movement of fear would have been a movement toward the self and the known. Would I pass over this time, or would I fall back into my self — as usual? Since there was no power of my own to move or choose, I knew the decision was not mine; within, all was still, silent and motionless. In the stillness, I was not aware of the moment when the fear and tension of waiting had left. Still, I continued to wait for a movement not of myself and when no movement came, I simply remained in a great stillness.
This would prove itself to be An Interminable Stillness from which the self could not find any avenue of escape.
Everyday tasks themselves seemed insufferable and could only be carried out when she had to perpetually remind herself what she was doing at any given moment. Periods of rest also seemed interminable and this was accompanied with a total absence of a time factor…
The moment I lay down I immediately blacked out. Sometimes it seemed I was out for hours, when it was only five minutes; at other times, it seemed like five minutes when it was hours. In this blackout there were no dreams, no awareness of my surroundings, no thoughts, no experiences — absolutely nothing.
In every aspect of her life a part of her never returned—some part of her was perpetually in numbing silence. It was as if part of her mind had totally shutdown. It was all an experience of lifelessness—like colorless slides on an antique film. Everything was empty—from the distant past and also the past few minutes. Within Buddhism this is the blossoming of śūnya, dead emptiness, and one which has no frames of reference on which to lay down one’s head. Total emptiness of the animating Selfhood. Indeed, from her Catholic background she had no frames of reference from which she could base her no-experience condition. But as we’ll see later on, even the doctrine of śūnyatā falls short of her ever-widening realizations of just what it was she was going through. Something new is occurring here. Something completely other from our own accustomed frames of reference.
For me, this experience was the height of my contemplative vocation. It was the ending of a question that had plagued me for years: where do “I” leave off and God begin? Over the years, the line that separated us had grown so thin and faded that most of the time I couldn’t see it anymore, but always my mind had wanted desperately to know: what was His and what was mine?
It was just a matter of days, a week perhaps, when my entire spiritual life — the work, the suffering, the experiences, and the goals of a lifetime — suddenly exploded into a million irretrievable pieces and there was nothing, absolutely nothing left.
When the Void comes calling, who or what are we to refuse?