God cannot be found in noise and agitation. His true power and love are revealed in what is hardly perceptible, in the gentle breeze that requires stillness and quiet to detect. In silence, God listens to us. In silence, listen to Him. In silence, God speaks to our souls and the power of His word is enough to transform our very being. We cannot speak to God and to the world at the same time. We need the sacred space that silence creates in order to turn our undivided attention toward God even if it is only for a few precious moments of our day.
Many respected persons made it a practice to rise in the night or in the quiet hours of the morning to seek inspiration that comes in silence, Plato, Einstein, and even Jesus Himself. We all should find a time and a place to be in silent prayer. In the Carmelite tradition, the spiritual life is said to have two aims: the first is about our love of God and the second is about God’s love for us. The practice of silence facilitates both of these aims.
The experience of God’s love for us
We are meant to taste in our hearts and experience in our minds, not only after death but in this life, something of the power of the Divine Presence and the bliss of heavenly glory. From this point of departure in faith, silence becomes more than a practice. It is a form of prayer—a prayer of listening, waiting, and receptivity. It is a prayer that anticipates and expects intimate communion; it believes in the possibility and holds in high esteem the value of being in relationship with God.
The value of this type of prayer is difficult for our productivity-oriented culture to grasp. It is hard for us to see that a prayer in which “being” predominates over “doing” and that a prayer in which nothing happens is a prayer in which everything happens. It is in silence that we make the interior transition from darkness to light. We become more aware of God’s presence within us, of Him speaking to us, of the hidden things which He wishes to reveal to us.
Through silence we become more deeply aware of the beauty, unity, goodness and truth all around us and within us. Through faith our whole outlook on life is changed. What used to appear as ordinary, temporal events, become reflections of these four attributes of God. These happenings become messages through which He speaks intimately to our hearts; moments of sublime personal contact with Infinite Love Itself.
Listening to the word in silence, faith and love, we hear the secret to our happiness and authentic personal fulfillment. Only in this do we truly begin to fill that deep void and satisfy the longing that consumes us as human persons.
The gift of love, however, only comes to complete fruition when it is embraced by our response of love. God gives Himself entirely to us without reserve. His one request is that we return His love in like manner. “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt 22:37-39, NASB). This is also expressed in the Carmelite tradition through the first aim of the spiritual life that we offer God a pure and holy heart, free of the actual stain of sin, accomplished both with God’s grace and our own efforts of virtuous living. The human heart in its brokenness tends to cling readily to those things among which it habitually finds itself. Our thoughts feed our emotions and our desires. So if we are placing ourselves most frequently in the noises of the world that speak to values contrary to God’s way, our desires will easily be lead astray. Ensnared by these misled desires, we cannot be free to love God with our whole being. The person who persistently seeks noise and diversion betrays his own insecurity. When we do not possess the changeless One, we seek constant change. The person who has encountered God, and seeks after Him in love, will return to the quiet places of silence where the sweetness of His presence still lingers.
“The Lord is in His holy temple, let all the earth keep silence before Him” (Habakkuk 2:20).
With this in mind, however, we must grow to that point of spiritual maturity where we do not seek silence primarily as the setting for an exalted spirituality or for the purpose of obtaining something we want for ourselves, even if it is as good a thing as contemplation or consolation. While these may very well be the supernatural results of fidelity to the practice of silence, to make them the end goals would be to get caught in the snare of self-seeking spirituality and this is quite opposite of God’s desire for us. Silence must eventually be sought in the first place as an expression of our total gift of self back to God. It becomes a response of love and an attitude of reverence for the One who has taken the initiative to love us and give Himself to us first. “The Lord is in His holy temple, let all the earth keep silence before Him” (Habakkuk 2:20).
Listening is an important expression of love. It’s a holy thing to listen, both to God and to our neighbor. Yet in order to truly listen, we must be silent. Do we have the ability to listen in authentic silence without interference from our own prejudice and self interest? When someone is speaking to me, when God is speaking to me, am I immediately thinking of my response to what they are saying? Am I thinking about the soup that is on the stove that might be burning? Am I wandering back to the events that happened in the day that still interfere in my mind? Or can I be totally present to the other…totally aware and receptive of what they are bringing to me? I would like to share a true story to illustrate this point.
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It was a dark, cloudy evening in mid-October. The perfect prelude to a night of thunder and rain, not unlike our nights lately here in Southern California. I was with my friend Lori at her old white farmhouse. Lori and I had been friends for a long time, since second grade. And ever since I can remember she loved to go out in the evening on the veranda to wait for her father to come home.
This particular night was not an extraordinary night, no different from the others. We had both grown beyond the age of playing jacks and pushing each other on the porch swing to pass the hours as we waited for the old Ford to rumble down the driveway. These days we had grown accustomed to sitting quietly on the front porch steps, sharing our dreams and our disappointments until we could see the dust in the distance as Lori’s father made his way down the old farm road. She would immediately spring up to her feet as soon as she saw the car and squeal with joy, hardly able to contain herself until she had her arms wrapped around her father’s sturdy neck and a joyful kiss planted firmly on his cheek. The ritual always fascinated me, and I always felt blessed to witness such a genuine expression of love.
Yet this particular night there was an added depth of meaning. You see the night was already dark and this meant that we could not see in the distance to detect when the smoke and the dust from the car would be coming. Not only that, but it was also difficult to hold a conversation on the dimly lit veranda. Lori was almost completely deaf and relied heavily on lip reading when the other person, such as myself, was not proficient in signing.
Comfortable with Lori’s limitations, we sat contentedly on the steps as usual but with very few words passing between us. We waited patiently, peering out into the darkness, exchanging an occasional insight or observation, mostly from myself as my mind continually wandered from one thought to another. Suddenly, out of the blue, Lori jumped up and squealed with her familiar recognition of her father’s car coming in the distance. I strained into the darkness but I couldn’t see a thing. “Lori,” I said, “Sit back down. I don’t see him coming yet.” In her excitement it took me a while to first get her attention. I repeated myself, but Lori was convinced that her father’s car would come into view at any moment.
Just then a pair of dim headlights rounded the corner and the old Ford pulled up next to the white-washed porch. Lori ran down the stairs and the usual greeting took place. I was dumbfounded. How did she know her father was coming? Not being able to contain my curiosity I asked her later that evening as we sat on the floor of her bedroom. Her response was, “I felt him coming.” “You felt him coming?” “Well yes,” she replied, “Over the years I’ve learned the feel of the vibrations from the ground as my father’s car approaches. When I’m very still and quiet, it is easy for me to tell when he is coming.”
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A profound lesson etched itself into my soul that evening. When we truly love, we make every effort to block out all that distracts us, all which can be an obstacle to anticipating and receiving the one we love. Lori’s life of silence had taught her to be sensitive to the vibrations that daily announced her father’s arrival. My friend, who had hardly heard a word in her life, knew what it meant to truly listen, to set aside her own expectations and make her whole being available and receptive to the approach of another.
How deep is my love? How much do I long for the arrival of my heavenly Father? Enough that I’m willing to wait in silence so that I may learn the signs of His gentle approach and relish His loving touch? God has given us a very eloquent example of this attitude in the witness of St. Joseph. Silence for him was not just a matter of mortifying his speech, but by it he made his own posture of extreme surrender and abandonment to God’s will and expressed it in his daily life.
Three times, we are told in scripture that an angel came to him with a command from God. “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife” (Matt 1:20, NASB). “Get up! Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt” (Matt 2:13, NASB). “Get up, take the Child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel; for those who sought the Child’s life are dead” (Matt 2:20, NASB). To these three commands, only one response is recorded: immediate fulfillment of the task in silent, loving solicitude. His complete surrender was the interior disposition from which all the signs of true love flow: patience, kindness, gentleness, unselfishness, and uncomplaining, unresentful obedience. Silence keeps us close to the loving, providential presence of God and fits us to meet and respond to it without hesitation in total and loving generosity to God’s will.
Silence can become the single, most powerful source of true love for man when it is God-centered, because through it we become aware of God’s profound love for each human person.
“If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20, NASB).
Love of God cultivated in silence must take on the prophetic and missionary dimension of proclaiming and showing his love to his neighbor. A prayerful, meditative silence is the mother of truth in which we not only surrender ourselves to God but also nurture our love for our neighbor while we are apart from them. Conversation with God, sustained in silence, strengthens us in grace so that when we come together as family, as community, as friends, or even when we come into contact with strangers, we are able to temper our broken natures and wills with the result that our interaction leads to growth in virtue. However, without this quiet rootedness in God, we instead perpetuate and can even further the weaknesses of each other through empty interactions. Silence can become the single, most powerful source of true love for man when it is God-centered because through it we become aware of God’s profound love for each human person.
Every aspect of our Christian lives must be pervaded by this joint love of God and neighbor. A true test of the genuineness of our love and our grasp of the wisdom of silence will be the manner in which we speak to one another. “For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:25, NIV). Since the purpose of speech is to share with others, our aim as Christians should always be to speak in a way that communicates love and preserves the dignity of all people.
Our current culture lays assault on the nobility of language by consumerism, irresponsible journalism and the everyday deluge of words. Speech is one of the greatest powers in the world. When used to its full potential, it can form alliances, sway opinions, make or break reputations of people and nations. It can build up or tear down walls of resistance and defense. It can create or destroy relationships among men. Yet the most powerful of all words is the one spoken in integrity, and it is silence that is the generator of this word. Without silence, the spoken word loses its power and its meaning. It becomes the empty gong and the clanging cymbal of St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.
This following passage is taken from the Book of Sirach 20:5-8, “There is one who by keeping silent is found wise; while another is detested for being too talkative. There is one who keeps silent because he has no answer, while another keeps silent because he knows when to speak. A wise man will be silent until the right moment, but a braggart and a fool goes beyond the right moment. Whoever uses too many words will be loathed; and whoever usurps the right to speak will be hated.” In silence, we learn the right moment for our words and how to speak them in truth and in love. God himself is the prime model of this truth. Psalm 12:6 explains that “The promises of the Lord are promises that are pure. Silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.” The innocence of God’s word is so full of love and so powerful that what He speaks comes into being. He has merely to breathe forth the thought of His heart and a new creation ensues.
And so it is that God’s promises, His words, are always true and He is always faithful to them. If He were not, His creation would cease to be. The ultimate and most perfect manifestation of this was His promise that He enfleshed. It is in the eternal silence of God that is spoken the eternal Word, His son, the only means of our promised redemption. Created to be imitators of God, made in His image and called to be molded into His likeness, we too are people of our word. What is in the very depths of our hearts is what forms the words on our lips. So the question we must ask ourselves is “What words?” If we are to be true imitators of God, faithful to our proper goal of union with Him, we must imitate Him in our words: holy purified and free from sin, free from selfishness, arrogance, vanity, competition and gossip. On our lips must be words that speak of both human and divine wisdom that build up our neighbor and encourage conversion. How will this transformation of our speech come about? Through silence. In silence, we commune with the One Whose first language is silence. And when we have sufficiently learned this language, we will have facility of speech. We will no longer speak words that distract, create noise, or vanquish good. Our words will contain in them something of the power of God. They will be words that truly influence others and participate in bringing to completion their redemption and our own. They will be words of healing, growth and love. And they will be spoken at the right moment.
Sister Mary Clare, O.C.D.
Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles
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