There are two ways we can look at the many distracting forces that keep us from Silence. One way is to see them as they have been seen in the spiritual tradition – as beings that intend to pull us into chaos and earthly desires and to trap us in our own egotism. The other way is to see these same forces as guardians of the realm of Silence, as beings that intend to keep us from wandering into Silence without the inner soul work needed to ensure that we do not use this experience for our egotistic needs. . . .
St. Anthony, the Christian Desert Father of the third and fourth century who is credited with establishing monastic life, can be considered an initiate into the realm of Silence. . . He spent twenty years alone in the desert, making a way for the rest of humanity to find Silence more easily should it so choose. . . .
When the threshold of Silence is crossed without preparation, we begin to feel assailed by all kinds of images, fantasies, confusing ideas, strange associations, assaults . . . St. Anthony experienced these assaults as real beings . . .
A scene such as this is depicted on a panel called The Temptations of St. Anthony which is part of the Isenheim Altarpiece, painted in the 16th century by Matthias Grunewald. . . .
Dragged through the midst of this, St. Anthony laughs uproariously. In a corner sits a more human-like small creature, with skin green and diseased, and wearing a red fool’s hat. This creature is crucial: his line of vision points upward; his eye unwaveringly placed on a spot of golden light in the sky where a figure, not quite discernible, seems to be sitting.
The odd and wonderful aspect of the picture is St. Anthony’s laughter, which is possible because he knows the difference between the illusion and reality of silence. And it is possible also because of the presence of the green-skinned, pockmarked little figure in the corner wearing the fool’s hat. This being is not part of the team of assailants. He is quite mysterious, although surely art historians and critics have much to say about him. I feel that he represents us all in our neglected instinctual spirit-being, and that St. Anthony’s capacity to go through the assault of the guardians while never losing connection with the spiritual worlds is the work of this protecting being. The instinctual spirit is a most important figure, and it is virtually unknown in most spiritual practices. We usually look upward and outward for the spirit. The fact is, though, we could never make connection with the “higher spirit” if there were not the presence of the instinctual spirit within each of us. . . .
The painting is a picture of Silence and of the purification needed to enter the realm of Silence. It gives us many clues that help us explore such a realm. Silence does not take us out of the noisy world; we are still dragged around by it, but we can be amused by its tactics and its crudeness. . . .
This scene tells us that as we try to enter Silence and encounter anxiety, fear, fantasy, stupid thoughts, and buzzing impulses, we get nowhere if we try to fight them off. In the painting, St. Anthony makes no attempt to kill them. We suspect that they are somehow a necessary part of our wholeness.