In Silence He Speaks
Coming to the Quiet Can Transform Your Life
Silence brings the sound of Quiet
To the ears of those who are willing,
Just for a moment, to become deaf.
Now that Easter Sunday has passed and so, too, Divine Mercy Sunday, it's no time to put away the disciplines you practiced during Lent. If you have, fish them out of storage. Remember, the Easter cycle runs until Pentecost.
While it's human nature to slack off, please, don't abandon your spiritual practices completely. May I suggest a simple activity you can do year round, one that, if practiced regularly, you will come to enjoy and will produce changes, some profound, in your spiritual life?
May I suggest silence?
'Permanent union with God'
All religions value silence, since it describes that place where we can ordinarily best hear the "voice" of God. For that reason, many religious orders maintain a rule of silence. The idea is not to discourage human speech but to encourage human listening so it can hear God-speak. That's why a lot of "talking" (more like super-verbal exchange) goes on in religious houses that practice silence.
"Silence is not an end in itself but always points to a relationship with Jesus," says Br. Chaminade, Order of Cistercians of the Strict Obedience (OSCO). Brother Chaminade, a contemplative who lives at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Ga., adds, "Some folks have the idea that our monastic life ends with silence. That is, silence is our purpose. It goes further than that. As you point out, silence leads to listening."
Brother Chaminade draws attention to Rule 24 of the OSCO Constitution: "Silence is counted among the principal monastic values of the Order. It assures solitude for the monk in community. It fosters mindfulness of God and fraternal communion. It opens the mind to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit and favors attentiveness of heart and solitary prayer to God."
Silence invariably leads to listening, making prayer passive. Instead of throwing words at God, a person becomes dependent on the ability to receive what God is saying.
Henri Nouwen, in The Way of the Heart, points out the relationship between solitude and silence to prayer:
If solitude were primarily an escape from a busy job, and silence primarily an escape from a noisy milieu, they could easily become very self-centered forms of asceticism. But solitude and silence are for prayer. The Desert Fathers did not think of solitude as being alone, but as being alone with God. They did not think of silence as not speaking, but as listening to God. Solitude and silence are the context within which prayer is practiced.
From Popes on down, silence has been valued. Pope Paul VI, on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1964, visited Nazareth. His main teaching was on silence.
"May there return to us an appreciation of this stupendous and indispensable spiritual condition," Pope Paul said, "deafened as we are by so much tumult, so much noise, so many voices of our chaotic and frenzied modern life. O silence of Nazareth, teach us the ... value of ... interior life, of secret prayer seen by God alone."
More recently, in a talk given in October, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI took up Pope Paul's theme, saying that "silence and contemplation have a purpose: They serve, in the distractions of daily life, to preserve permanent union with God. That is their purpose, that union with God may always be present in our souls and may transform our entire being."
The Catechism of the Catholic Church recommends praying in places that "provide necessary solitude for more intense personal prayer" (2691).
Jesus knew silence well. Most of Christ's early years are not recorded in the New Testament. We don't know what He did or where He was during that time. Pope John Paul II said that during those years, Jesus lived a hidden life "in anonymity and silence." Moreover, before beginning his public ministry, what does Jesus do? He goes off alone into the desert for 40 days. There is no silence like wilderness silence.
Consider also these two passages from Mark:
"And in the early morning, while it was still dark, He arose and went out and departed to a lonely place, and was praying there" (Mk 1:35). Later, when the apostles return to Jesus after being sent out in pairs to minister, He says to them, "'Come away by yourselves to a lonely place and rest awhile.' (For there were many people coming and going, and they did not have time even to eat)" (Mk 8:31).
There's also the resounding story about the adulteress brought to Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees. It says a lot about silence.
The officials catch a woman in the act of adultery and bring her to Jesus, asking how He would handle the situation. Their pernicious delight is almost palatable, because they think they've finally trapped Him. If Jesus advises that they follow the law, He becomes partner in a killing. If He says let her go, He becomes not only a lawbreaker but an apologist for adultery.
Instead, He responds with the greatest riposte in the Bible: "Let he who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her" (Jn 8:6).
His response absolutely floors the angry crowd. No one dares throw that first stone, and one by one they drop their rocks and leave, crestfallen and defeated. What is equally interesting, however, is what Jesus does immediately before and after the incident. Let's look at more of the story:
But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. And early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people were coming to Him, and He sat down and began to teach them. And the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the midst, they said to Him, "Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do you say?" And they were saying this, testing Him, in order that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down, and with His finger wrote on the ground. But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, "Let he who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." And again He stooped down, and wrote on the ground (Jn 8:1-8).
Jesus' finger writing wasn't about buying time so He could think up a clever response. He was entering into silence, a quiet (though dynamic) condition that refreshes the spirit by allowing access to God's realm, the present moment.
Aren't you like me — haven't you found something closed, even sealed off, about your "normal" work-a-day self, bothered as we are by the cares, little and big, of everyday life? The answer isn't more distraction and noise from worthless pastimes and activities. The answer is silence.
We need to open ourselves by escaping this stressful and noisy way of living, even if that escape is but for a few moments. Silence helps open up the closed self, whereby a person falls into a prayerful state almost as easily as he or she takes the next breath.
In the adulteress story, Jesus pauses for silence three times: first in the morning at the Mount of Olives, and twice when he writes on the ground. Let's try to learn from this.
How do you "come to the Quiet?" Keep in mind that no one can teach you how to do it. There's a Polish proverb to this effect: "One man may teach another to speak, but none can teach another to hold his peace."
You have to find your own way. The good news is it's not difficult, though you may need to "get your feet wet" before diving in. Start small and get big. Here are 10 tips that might help.
1. Alone together
Find a place where you can be "alone together" with God. It doesn't have to be a desert, a wilderness, a mountaintop, or a cave (you know, the traditional images that come to mind when we think of a "holy man"). It can be anywhere: a room, a nook by the trees in your back yard, in your car while driving to work, in the basement when you're folding the laundry. Use your imagination. You'll be amazed at the number of hidden opportunities to find silence.
2. Nothing doing
Once you get "there," what do you do? Nothing. Nothing, that is, but listen for the voice of God. What does that sound like? Like no human voice you've ever heard. You may not recognize it at first. Most of the time, that voice begins as noiselessness (different from silence) until silence itself arrives and becomes the medium through which His voice is conveyed. Even then you might miss it, especially early in your visits to the silent spot. It takes getting used to, like entering a dark room after being out in the sun. Gradually, what's left in the silence will begin to "speak" in a way you will begin to recognize. You'll know it when you hear it. You were born with this ability. Relax. Be patient. Be confident.
3. Baby Steps
You can't run a marathon until you can first run 10 steps. You can't spend hours in silence until you can do it for five minutes. If you can't do five, try for one or two. Surprisingly, even that brief a time, over time, will produce a benefit.
4. Stay at it
Look for ways to incorporate silent breaks during the day. Be persistent. Don't think in terms of formal meditation. Think daily about snatching snippets of time. You'll find them scattered here and there as plentiful as discarded Lottery tickets, except these "tickets" are winners.
5. You Can't Go Wrong
There's no "wrong" way to be quiet. Experiment and see what works. Make it enjoyable, not a task. Do you like standing or sitting? Moving or being still? Do you like prayer or an emptying of mind? Do you prefer a specific room? Do you like the lights up or down? Indoors or outdoors? Music or not? Will a candle help? Be curious. Figure out what works. Trust your instincts.
6. The Noise of Quiet
Learn how to find quiet even in noisy situations. On a factory floor, inside a train station, aboard a bus, in a shopping mall, in a crowd — you can achieve silence if you realize silence is an attitude as much as a physical condition measured by the absence of sound. Quieting the mind in the middle of noisy chaos is a great spiritual exercise. Make a game of the challenge, and it can even be fun.
7. Adding Up
The effects of silence are cumulative. They add up. Don't worry that you don't have an hour. Rather, find five periods of three minutes you can sneak in each day. That's a quarter-hour without breaking a sweat.
8. Don't Forget to Breath
Not the shallow panting most of us do, but slow, rhythmic, deep inhales and exhales: that's breathing. You'll be amazed what even a couple minutes of slow, quiet, conscious breathing can do for your spirit.
9. Stay Fit
Keep your body in shape so your muscles will cooperate during quiet time. Stretching, aerobics, and strength workouts will help. Be sensible, though. Do what you can. Something, even a 10-minute walk three times a week, is better than nothing.
10. Use the Eucharist
As Br. Chaminade puts it, "What better time to be silent than after Holy Communion?" Frequent reception of Holy Communion has the effect of quieting the soul, leading one into silence. From there, you will learn to recognize what the Presence in silence is like. That will help you begin to find the same Presence elsewhere or anywhere, for the effects of the Eucharist are lingering and long term. There is one body, not many. The "union" in Communion is God joining Himself to us and loving every bit of it.
In her Diary, St. Faustina describes the joy of this union: "After Communion today, Jesus told me how much He desires to come to human hearts. I desire to unite Myself with human souls; My great delight it to unite Myself with souls. Know, My daughter, that when I come to a human heart in Holy Communion, My hands are full of all kinds of graces which I want to give the soul" (1385).
Prayers of Action
Once you find the quiet, you'll see a change not only in the way you pray but also in the way you think about prayer. Your discipline will gradually reveal what American philosopher Richard Gregg called "the disease of self-love which so intimately penetrates they very fibers of [our] being," the same self-love that passes "unobserved by the person that does not lead an interior life."
The prayer that emerges from this realization is invariably an action prayer that produces change, and I'm convinced that's why Jesus went away by Himself so many times. His public ministry wasn't about abstractions but about actions. Look no further than the cross for proof. God's plan for salvation was no airy concept but an event requiring physical death. No idea got pounded with nails, but the actual flesh and blood of a man's hands and feet. Neither was the Resurrection an intellection or a figure of speech. It happened in a sense we can't understand and in a manner to which we can ascribe no properties, but the point is, it happened.
The other side of silence
What awaits us on the other side of silence? When we "come out of it" and get back to the cacophonous work-a-day world, we do things better and in a more realized way. We have more patience, compassion, creativity, and energy. We are happier. We get less rattled when things go wrong. In short, most everything gets better: relationships, work, play, thinking, and doing. We are quick to extend mercy, slow to anger. Forgiveness comes more easily.
We begin to live more of an interior life, where we can find an irreducible core. We live less of a noisy life, where we flit unstably from one man-made sound to another and which, in excess, promises only an erosion of self.
I try to convey that in this verse:
Silent, amid the din,
All within remains still,
All without a noisy blur.
Speak when All is still
And silence is a tangent,
Not Absolute, as it were.
The first is the saint.
The second is the sinner.
Of this I am sure.
Through silence, God has spoken down the ages to various people of heroic virtue, people like Abraham, Moses, Mohammed, Buddha, and the saints, including St. Faustina. If we could imagine ourselves like them and envision God speaking to us in our imperfect human state, what would we hear?
We would hear Nothing.
And we would know it as good.
Dan Valenti is senior editor/writer for many publications of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception. He also writes the Mercy Blog for this website.