Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Some Words on Silence

The following talk was given at a retreat for some students in our  Masters in Theological Studies Program at Campion Center this past weekend.


I started to fast as a way to pray for the defeat of Physician Assisted Suicide a couple weeks ago..  I had oatmeal for breakfast, which really made my doctor happy.  I had soup for lunch and a very small piece of fish with some potatoes for supper.  It’s not easy, but I need to fast.

Oh, not for the obvious reasons, the ones that are scrupulously marked down on my doctor’s Ipad each time I go to see him, but I need to fast from food for a more important reason.

You see, every time I eat I’m convinced that the food is mine...I’ve earned it, I have a right to it.  After all I’ve done, it’s the least God can do is to give me a good meal....It’s my food....I’ve got a right to it.  It’s a matter of simple justice. 

And when I open my wallet and give some of my money away to the poor, I am being so generous, I am such a good person.   So kind, so self-sacrificing.  Every night before he goes to bed God must says prayers of thankfulness for having had such a good son.

My food....my money....it’s all mine.  See what I need to do is fast.

Because fasting teaches me that it’s not all about me.  When fasting, it hits me between the eyes (or maybe between the eyes and stomach) that neither the food, nor the money, nor the power, nor my good health, nor anything else I can see or taste or feel belongs to me.  It’s all his.  And by letting go of it, and placing it in his hands (even for a little while), and by waiting to hear what he wants me to do with it, I am doing his will.  It a matter of simple justice.

You think, when you give the poor man a piece of bread, Saint Leo the Great once wrote, that you are generously sharing with him something that is yours.  But you are a fool, he says, for all of creation has been given to us by God, nothing belongs to you!  You are just giving to the poor man the piece of bread which God had created for him.

And finally, and hardest of all, I started to fast from noise.  From the noise of my own voice (I try to shut up for long stretches of time) and from the constant carcophany, the billious barrage of static with which I fill my soul from morning to night.  But try it sometime.  Unplug the ear buds, turn down the TV, stop singing that song out loud and sit down and shut up.  And listen to the silence.

Blessed Pope John Paul II spoke frequently about silence.  Maybe he learned that as an eight year old boy when his mother died and he sat quietly in the corner of the room as she was waked in the front parlor.    Maybe he learned it when twelve years later his father died and left him alone to face the world as he knelt in the Church after everyone else left and first began to hear God whispering the idea of Priesthood to him.  Maybe he learned it that Black Sunday when he hid from the Nazi troops all day in the craw space under his Uncle’s house.  Imagine this twenty-something, still recovering from two weeks in the hospital after being hit by a German truck, hearing the sound of the jack boots as they searched for Polish collaborators.  Maybe it was that silence that taught him the power of no words spoken at all.

In any case, Blessed John Paul looked on the noisiness of our era as an invitation to carve out moments of quiet. He summed up his view in this way.  He once wrote: “The frenetic activity of modern life with all its pressures makes it indispensable that Christians seek prayerful silence and contemplation as both conditions for and expressions of a vibrant faith. When God is no longer at the center of human life, then life itself becomes empty and meaningless…Jesus himself often “went off to a lonely place and prayed there…” Jesus’ prayer is our example, especially when we are caught up in the tensions and responsibilities of daily life.” (John Paul II, Ecclesia in Oceania, no. 37.)

There is no word as powerful as silence.  Silence cannot be done in haste.  Only silence can enable us to embrace with our hearts which is being prayed, sung, or said.  Silence must come before action and the only reaction worthy to follow a meeting with God, is kneeling in silence, humility, and joy.

And whose the patron saint of silence?  It might be Saint Joseph, if you listen to Pope Benedict XVI he has recommended Saint Joseph as an example for each of us who seeks to cultivate an interior quiet.

[Saint Joseph’s] silence is steeped in contemplation of the mystery of God in an attitude of total availability to the divine desires. In other words, St Joseph's silence does not express an inner emptiness but, on the contrary, the fullness of the faith he bears in his heart and which guides his every thought and action. 

It is a silence thanks to which Joseph, in unison with Mary, watches over the Word of God, known through the Sacred Scriptures, continuously comparing it with the events of the life of Jesus; a silence woven of constant prayer, a prayer of blessing of the Lord, of the adoration of his holy will and of unreserved entrustment to his providence…Let us allow ourselves to be "filled" with St Joseph's silence! In a world that is often too noisy, that encourages neither recollection nor listening to God's voice, we are in such deep need of it. ...let us cultivate inner recollection in order to welcome and cherish Jesus in our own lives. (Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus, December 18, 2005.)

Jesus Sought Silence
Even the Lord, Son of the Living God, the Word through whom all things were made, sought silence at every important moment of his life amoung us.  As God, he was the word of love made flesh which lived amoung us.  As a man like us in all things but sin, he needed silence to purify, strengthen and center the heart of him.

You remember how his ministry began, with his Baptism by John in the Jordan River?  The voice comes down from heaven, “This is my beloved Son,” and Jesus immediately sets out on his earthy ministry.  Well not immediately, for first, as we heard yesterday, 

“Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” (Matthew 4:1-2.) He goes immediately from the river to the desert, to a place of silence.

And when he was about to call the Twelve to go out to proclaim that the Kingdom of God was at hand, what did Jesus do?  “he went out to the mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God.” (Luke 6:12-13.)

And when Jesus heard that John the Baptist had died, “he withdrew from there in a boat to a secluded place by Himself.” (Matthew 14:10-13a.)

And when the crowds got overwhelming, “he went up on the mountain by Himself to pray; and when it was evening, He was there alone.” (Matthew 14:23.)

And, finally, when he was about to offer the paschal sacrifice of himself upon the cross, what did he do?  “...he came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to the disciples, "Sit here while I go and pray over there." (Matthew 26:36.)

At every crucial turning point in his life and ministry, the Lord sought that which watches over us and invites us to a place deep within, a sanctuary where God comes to meet us.

Jesus sought silence, because it means three things: To fast from noise is really to Listen, to Pray, and to Love.

To Listen
One woman wrote in a letter to the editor of the New York Times last December:  I was going to take [my daughter] along with me to a tai chi class, as I did each Tuesday night, when this exchange happened.  I asked, “Want to bring some music since you have no homework to do during class?”  Emily: “Why would I want to do that? Then I wouldn’t be able to hear the silence.”

One of the Oscar contenders this year is a silent movie, that’s right, a silent move, called “The Artist.”  One reviewer wrote: “It turns out that...it was clever to do a silent movie in 2011, as an antidote to our modern plague of pointless chatter...[the Director] recalled that at a French screening of the movie, a group of teenagers approached him. “They thanked me for letting them hear the silence,” he said. “It was touching to discover that these young people, always with their iPods, could like real silence.

Even at Mass we seek silence.  Pope John Paul II, in an address to Bishop of the United States in 1998, explained how we participate in the Liturgy: by song, gesture, prayer, and even silence....

“active participation,” he suggested, “does not preclude the active passivity of silence, stillness and listening: indeed, it demands it. Worshippers are not passive, for instance, when listening to the readings or the homily, or following the prayers of the celebrant, and the chants and music of the liturgy. These are experiences of silence and stillness, but they are in their own way profoundly active. In a culture which neither favors nor fosters meditative quiet, the art of interior listening is learned only with difficulty. Here we see how the liturgy, though it must always be properly inculturated, must also be counter-cultural.”

To pray
The great philosopher Rudolf Otto speaks of God as the mysterium trimendum: the unimaginable mystery, so much greater than even our imaginations can grasp.  And all you can do when you encounter the mysterium trimendum, Otto tells us, is to shut up and bow down.

Silence is the ultimate affirmation of God’s will.  No more words, no more rationalizations, no more trying to figure it out, but like the little kid, we let our Father lead us by the hand where he wants us to go.

Silence embraces what Virginia Wolfe used to call “moments of being,” moments in which we are more profoundly aware of our being alive and real that at any other time of our lives.  Such moments can only take place in silence.

Think of the first time a mother takes her child in her arms.  No words, just silence and profound bonding and love.  Think of the last time you hold the hand of a loved one before he dies.  No words, just silence and love.  Think of the moment of desperation as you stare at the cross, or the moment of deep joy as your heart overflows.  No words, just silence and being and the peace the world cannot give.

It is, perhaps, when we are silent that we are most alive.  Which is why the cultural of death thrives on words.  Words which seek to manipulate and pevert.  Remember the first weapon which the serpentine Satan used in the garden to lead our first parents to perdition?   It was words.  Did God really tell you not to eat from any tree in the garden? You won’t die!  Eat that fruit and you’ll be like God!  Lies.  Lies which are the first strike of Satan at the human heart.

But Satan does not use silence.  Silence is the carving tool of God, when we bow before him in silence and adoration.

To Love
“What’s the best gift Tom ever gave you for Christmas?” I once asked a friend of mine on her fortieth anniversary of marriage.  She stopped and comtemplated thoughtfully for a minute, and then she smiled.  Silence, she said.  Especially when he knows I’m full of hot air, but he listens anyways.  

One of the seminarians recently came to me with a concern with his apostolate: he’s just starting out and he’s been assigned to visit folks in an Alzkeimer’s unit in a nursing home outside Boston.  I expected he’d come back with the typical frustrations which everyone tyring to care for an Alzkeimer’s patient reports.  But his frustration was different.  I go there for an hour, he said, and I don’t feel like I’ve done anything to help them.  I just sit there and listen to the same stories over and over.  I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do.

Well, I suggested, I think you’re doing quite enough, probably more than anyone else in their lives.  Because the one thing people with dementia don’t get is someone to listen to them, to patiently and respectfully listen to them.  To love them enough to forget about your needs and to just sit there in silence and look at them with love.

Did you ever have anyone do that for you?  A spouse, a parent, a child, a friend?  The little boy who looks up with boundless pride at his Father, the mother who at two in the morning just sits in that chair by her sick child’s bed, staring with love and with hope.  The now penniless parents looking across the field at their child’s graduation from College, just staring at her with pride and with love.  Or the old man whose wife’s dementia has removed every memory of him from her mind, but who still just stares at her wrinkled face with deep deep love.  And always such looks are in silence.  For silence is sacred and bespeeks that which poor words can’t convey.  Silence speaks the ineffable.

And by it we listen, we pray...and we love!