The summer after I graduated from the eighth grade, my family moved away forever from my childhood home in Chicago, to a small and modest house in a village surrounded by farmland and forests. The change was too much for me; I was a very high-strung and nervous boy, and almost immediately, I began to stutter. I could barely get out even one sentence without stuttering. I didn’t stutter much before that, as I remember, but in my new high school, and in the social insecurity of knowing no one and having to make new friends, I began to stutter.
My best friend—he literally adopted me into his family—was a Puerto Rican boy, Freddy Iglesia. He was physically bigger than me, and of muscular build, in contrast to me, a skinny, unathletic runt. He spoke English with a little bit of an accent, and I spoke Spanish to him, the language I had studied at school for the last two years. When I spoke Spanish, I didn’t stutter, and so I enjoyed hanging around with him at school and at his house, where Tia was always cooking something for the large family. I spoke Spanish and felt at home there.
After our freshman year in high school, gradually we came to see each other less and less. Why? Because he became popular, with sports, with the girls, and I was shy, stayed out of the limelight, tried to cover up my stuttering as best as I could, without success. When it was my turn to read aloud, I almost always stuttered. It terrified me to be in literature classes. I couldn’t even say the word ‘literature’ without stuttering. To this day, the ghost of my speech defect still haunts me and occasionally shows up.
An odd fact about my stuttering was this: I didn’t stutter if I was speaking my lines from memory in a dramatic presentation. I had to recite some of the well-known dialog from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. I memorized it and can probably still recite it if I try, ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…’ I also didn’t stutter if I was made to stand in front of the class to read a poem out of a book. Once, our assignment was to pick a poem, read it aloud in front of the class, and then comment on it. I chose the poem ‘Silence’ by Edgar Lee Masters.
I have known the silence of the stars and of the sea,
And the silence of the city when it pauses,
And the silence of a man and a maid,
And the silence for which music alone finds the word,
And the silence of the woods before the winds of spring begin,
And the silence of the sick
When their eyes roam about the room.
And I ask: For the depths
Of what use is language?
A beast of the field moans a few times
When death takes its young.
And we are voiceless in the presence of realities—
We cannot speak.
A curious boy asks an old soldier
Sitting in front of the grocery store,
"How did you lose your leg?"
And the old soldier is struck with silence,
Or his mind flies away
Because he cannot concentrate it on Gettysburg.
It comes back jocosely
And he says, "A bear bit it off."
And the boy wonders, while the old soldier
Dumbly, feebly lives over
The flashes of guns, the thunder of cannon,
The shrieks of the slain,
And himself lying on the ground,
And the hospital surgeons, the knives,
And the long days in bed.
But if he could describe it all
He would be an artist.
But if he were an artist there would be deeper wounds
Which he could not describe.
There is the silence of a great hatred,
And the silence of a great love,
And the silence of a deep peace of mind,
And the silence of an embittered friendship,
There is the silence of a spiritual crisis,
Through which your soul, exquisitely tortured,
Comes with visions not to be uttered
Into a realm of higher life.
And the silence of the gods
who understand each other without speech,
There is the silence of defeat.
There is the silence of those unjustly punished;
And the silence of the dying whose hand
Suddenly grips yours.
There is the silence between father and son,
When the father cannot explain his life,
Even though he be misunderstood for it.
There is the silence that comes between husband and wife.
There is the silence of those who have failed;
And the vast silence that covers
Broken nations and vanquished leaders.
There is the silence of Lincoln,
Thinking of the poverty of his youth.
And the silence of Napoleon
And the silence of Jeanne d'Arc
Saying amid the flames, "Blessèd Jesus"—
Revealing in two words all sorrow, all hope.
And there is the silence of age,
Too full of wisdom for the tongue to utter it
In words intelligible to those who have not lived
The great range of life.
And there is the silence of the dead.
If we who are in life cannot speak
Of profound experiences,
Why do you marvel that the dead
Do not tell you of death?
Their silence shall be interpreted
As we approach them.
I can still hear my boyish voice reading this poem to my classmates. I have never forgotten it, and it has had a lifelong influence on me. I never stuttered even once when I was reading it then, and I don’t remember stuttering when I was commenting on it. I think this poem came as a sort of turning point in my life. I could see that there might be a different kind of life than the one I was living. The line ‘…and the silence of Jeanne d’Arc saying amid the flames, “Blessèd Jesus”…’ grabbed my attention somehow. I was a Catholic, but who was Jesus?
There is really only one question, it seems, that ever needs to be asked, and it was at that time, probably in my twelfth grade English class, that I think I first asked it. Conversion to Christ doesn’t always begin with a consciousness of sin. We don’t often really understand what sin is. Other things, what we perceive as our defects, come to the fore to torment us, as I was tormented by my stuttering as a high school student. It isolated me from others, marginalized me. I wanted to belong, but I was rejected. ‘Silence’ became a door to acceptance.
After high school I followed my friends to a small town college where I tried to major in the natural sciences and mathematics, but my heart was always tugging at me to read history, to learn new languages, to read and write, literature—the word I couldn’t even say without stuttering. I changed majors, not to literature—I couldn’t handle reading all those books!—but to history, where there seemed to be more freedom. I wanted to save literature for my ‘fun time’ and history could be what I did for a living.
Thinking a lot about silence lately, I’m not surprised these memories came back to me. Something a friend said to me some weeks ago, ‘Silence is the language of the age to come,’ has kept circulating in my blood. Loving languages as I do, I’ve often thought, ‘If only I could live a thousand years, I could learn all the languages I want to know.’ But there really is only one language, and that is of the Spirit of God, who has flattened our towers so that in humility and repentance we can find the stairway to the heavens.