01 Oct How Much Silence is There in Your Life?
by Fr. David May
October. Month of the holy rosary. Month of turning to Our Lady in a renewed act of prayer for the world and for oneself. Month of standing before Our Lady of Silence seeking that rebirth that only silence can give.
“Silence: All who enter this House of God.” So read the inscription on the pillar of a local church not so long ago. I wonder if they left it when it was remodeled after a fire.
It’s rare today, isn’t it, to enter a church on Sunday and find silence. Often, the choir (or even the whole congregation) is practicing the hymns of the day for the last few times.
The hospitality people are welcoming worshippers, at times being quite chatty about it. In some places, a few devotees are praying before the statue of Mary or of some other saint, and the candles are flickering quietly before them.
These people seem oblivious to the pre-liturgical ruckus and other preparations going on—flocks of altar servers in V-formation to the left, choirs coming in for a landing to the right.
But sometimes for a moment or two, all is very still before Mass begins. And this silence after noise is all the more tangible, as if inviting us to enter now into a true mystery, something awesome and beyond us, but inviting us to imbibe.
How much silence do you cultivate in your everyday life? Is it something you avoid like the proverbial plague? Or do you seek it like that deer which longs for running streams?
Are you always “plugged in”—to the web, to the TV, to music, to the 24-hour-a-day news channel?
We even have an expression today—”he came unplugged”—which implies some type of a breakdown in normal functioning.
However, one wonders if there doesn’t need to be a reworking of that phrase so that the answer to the question, “How’s it going?” could be this: “Great! I’m completely unplugged this evening!”
I love standing before Our Lady of Combermere or an icon of the Mother of God, for example, and just praying a rosary there. I don’t do it as often as I would like, for various reasons.
Catherine Doherty taught us years ago that if in our spirits we were in some way disturbed, if we prayed for 15 minutes before an icon of Our Lady, or even just stand there looking at her quietly, her silence would bring us peace and healing. I have certainly found that to be true.
Obviously, this silence that I am alluding to is not one of emptiness, a vacuum, a void. Nature abhors a vacuum, we say, and we avoid a void at all costs. And today, silence from God is often confused with “the void to be avoided.”
We sense nothing in it but an absence or the raucous onslaught of our own buzzing thoughts. But wisdom teaches us that if we persevere in prayer through these initial negative impressions of God’s silence, there is a gift of peace, healing, and rest offered therein that we all desperately need.
Out of the heart of silence come so many gifts. First, yes, often it’s our own noise we notice most of all: all kinds of thoughts ranging from irritation or worse in relation to others, to imagined exploits we’ll do in the future, like conquering nations for Christ or at least baking a decent cake for a relative’s birthday!
Or there are thoughts of self-reproach, regrets about the past, fear of what God might ask of us. But all of this is going on within us in any case; it’s just that we are often too busy to notice it unless it becomes in some way overwhelming.
By stopping and allowing what’s there to signify its presence, we can learn to hand everything over to the Lord. Gradually, these disturbing thoughts diminish.
The names of Jesus and Mary are like soothing oil on the troubled waters of our mind and heart. After a while, fear becomes trust; anguish, peaceful acceptance; and shame, covered in mercy beyond measure.
Out of silence comes also the inspiration needed to cope with the challenges of life. Paradoxically, if we stop thinking and fretting for a time, the problem will often solve itself, or the solution will suddenly become evident, where before there was only a tangled knot impossible to cut through.
Inspiration not only consists of a solution to problems, but also of the energy to deal with same, energy that comes from hope. It is in the silence of prayer that hope is once again renewed, and despair melts away.
Often, we need to talk with someone to get a handle on what’s troubling us. Talking to God is of the essence, of course, but at times he sends someone to help us sort things out.
But even here, it is not so much what the other person says that gives light; it is the silence of that person, who listens to us deeply and is present to us at the level not only of the mind and of necessary discussion, but also at the level of the heart, to accompany us in the spirit of Christ.
In the silent and sympathetic presence of another who listens, Christ himself becomes present. And in that encounter, 95% of a given difficulty resolves itself then and there. I have seen this happen again and again.
Over time, Our Lady shares with us a great gift, in one sense, the greatest of gifts: the silence of God himself. Catherine wrote about this so beautifully and yet mysteriously in her book Molchanie: The Silence of God.
What is this all about? It is something more than our own quieting down so that we can listen to him better, though that of course goes into it.
It is something other, too, than even a grace of habitual recollection of spirit, such as one reads about in reflections on the Jesus Prayer, or in books like the one by Brother Lawrence on the practice of the presence of God.
In the silence of God himself, there is a vast and wondrous divine presence, inviting us ever deeper into the mystery of who he is, not only as something that happens when one is praying, but rather in the midst of life itself.
Whereas at one point in life, we depended on “words” from the Lord for guidance and enlightenment, whatever the source—Scripture, being prayed over or some thought coming during prayer—now this happens somewhat less frequently.
It still goes on and we are grateful when we receive such a word, but more often, one enters a little further into the experience of God’s silence.
And whereas in former times this experience might have disturbed or frustrated us or provoked feelings of being abandoned by him, now there is a peaceful acceptance.
Now, silence itself is our word or teacher, our embrace by the Father of his beloved child. The embrace itself, wordless but so deep, restores and gives direction.
This silence accompanies us wherever we go, right in the midst of the greatest blur of activity, worries, trials, responsibilities, meetings, even business meetings and parish council meetings (smile)!
You still need to pray, to “work” at prayer, of course, but now what guides that prayer is the longing to plunge more deeply into the great sea of his silence.
Catherine writes much more eloquently and poetically about it in Molchanie. I am only giving a bare outline of it all in this brief article.
At the heart of this reality will always be the Mother of God, who “mothers” silence within us, and shares from her heart the silence of God as a gift. Catherine Doherty ends the book Molchanie* with this description of an encounter in prayer with the Mother of God:
“From around a bend, a young woman comes walking towards me. I stop, and she stops, too. I say to her, ‘You are the one I am seeking. You can lead me to my love. I want to speak with him. I believe that the only way I can speak with him is by silence. The farther I walk into his silence, the more I have been able to hear his voice.’
“She looks at me with a lovely gentleness. There is a rock nearby. She points to it and says, ‘Come, sit down here with me. Yes, you have found me. I truly am the gate that leads to him whom you love. Hold my hand, and I shall become a gate for you to pass through. I am the woman wrapped in the silence of God.’
“As she opens her arms, I see that the inside of her mantle is crimson red. She is the spouse of the Holy Spirit! Without hesitation I walk into her heart. And in this immense heart of the woman who is the Mother of God and Mother of men, I meet him whom I love and seek.”