I recently finished rereading Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman (1966), a book I had kept in storage for a number of years. In the novel, Percy introduces his character Will Barrett, a confused, searching 25 year-old from the Mississippi Delta.

Barrett has bouts of amnesia and all sorts of adventures, ending up finally in New Mexico at a dude ranch, where he has gone in search of his fiancee’s brother Sutter Vaught. Upon reaching the ranch, Barrett sits down at mid-afternoon and sniffs the soil, comparing the place to his home. Percy describes the scene:

The silence was disjunct. It ran concurrently with one and did not flow from the past. Each passing second was packaged in cottony silence. It had no antecedents…. Even in the Southern wilderness there is ever the sense of someone close by, watching…. Here one was not watched. There was no one. The silence hushed everything up, the small trees were separated by a geometry of silence.

“A geometry of silence.” I have pondered that phrase for days now. I like the sound of the words together, but what could Percy mean? I even looked up “geometry” in the dictionary, seeking some definition beyond the field of mathematics.

I decided that the author intended to describe an arrangement of objects, ideas and/or events placed in such a way as to create awe and a radical sense of the present in which one is utterly alone, but also filled with possibility. The silence of the New Mexico desert was qualitatively different from that encountered elsewhere. Because of it, in it, Barrett became disconnected from all that had gone before and could entertain new possibilities, accountable only to himself.  Such silence was both delight and terror, gift and demand. All the young man’s doubts and fears and muddled musings were “hushed…up.”

Advent also envelops us in a geometry of silence. It invites us to entertain new possibilities for life as we repent. The flow from the past—the guilt, the regret, the missed opportunities—need not and will not overwhelm us. And in our weariness, we can once again know hushed wonder as we nestle in the “cottony silence” of the good news brought by angels.

“How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given! So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.”

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved. 

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