“The Father spoke one Word, which was His Son, and this Word He always speaks in eternal silence, and in silence must It be heard in the soul.” —St. John of the Cross, Spiritual Maxims.
“We encounter God only in the eternal silence in which he abides,” Robert Cardinal Sarah says in the opening of The Power of Silence. “Have you ever heard the voice of God as you hear mine?”
The saints and spiritual masters teach us that silence is a prerequisite for prayer. “Contemplative prayer is silence,” the Catechism says, “the ‘symbol of the world to come’ or ‘silent love’… In this silence, unbearable to the ‘outer’ man, the Father speaks to us his incarnate Word” (CCC 2717). Through silence, God’s creation returns to Him and is recreated in His image.
Silence also precedes and accompanies the creative arts: visual art, writing, music, architecture, and other forms of craftsmanship. An image, a word, a melody, an idea—we hear these whispers at quiet times. Early mornings, late nights. During prayer. While folding laundry, weeding the garden, walking the dog, or nursing the baby. Man and woman are made in the image of God, and the artist in a particular way is an image of God the Creator. And how did God create the world? Out His eternal silence.
Before God spoke, silence.
Before the artist creates, silence.
To borrow the Dominican saying, the artist contemplates and hands on the fruits of contemplation (contemplare et contemplata aliis tradere). When we work from silence, we teach silence. Have you ever had a “book hangover,” when you’ve read something so powerful that you need time to process what you read before picking up another book? A book hangover is a moment of silence and contemplation.
Yet we live in a busy, noisy world. Even when we seek exterior silence—shutting down Facebook, turning off Spotify—interior silence remains elusive. We have many needs pressing upon us, and it’s hard to settle down and think, let alone contemplate. Some of these demands are right and proper, such as the duties incumbent on spouses and parents. But other demands are mere noise, chipping away at our ability to listen and create, to proclaim God and all that is true, good, and beautiful through our work. If we can’t hear, we can’t listen. If we can’t listen, we can’t speak—or when we do, our words merely add to the world’s chatter.
Cardinal Sarah’s warning against the dangers of garrulousness is therefore apropos. He quotes Thomas Merton, saying that we need to learn how to keep “‘the inviolability of one’s spiritual sanctuary, the center of the soul.’” The talkative person, the Cardinal says, is “carried away toward the outside by a need to say everything”:
His life is spent entirely on his lips and spills out in floods of words that carry off the increasingly meager fruits of his thought and of his soul…The now widespread habit of testifying in public to the divine graces granted in the innermost depths of a man’s soul exposes him to the dangers of superficiality, the self-betrayal of his interior friendship with God, and vanity” (27).
Our culture values the loud, public proclamation of one’s “identity,” the peg upon which people hang their self-worth, their values, and sense of being. This temptation to garrulous self-exposure affects the religious person and the artist alike. Sometimes we treat our faith or our artistic vocation as versions of secular identity, that is, when our testimony no longer points to Christ and instead points to ourselves and our own spiritual prowess, artistic virtuosity, or “Catholicity.” The sound of our own voice is amplified in the auditorium of social media: gain enough of an Instagram following and suddenly you’re a spiritual or artistic master!
How, then, do we avoid useless talk and the temptations that come with speaking, writing, painting, and music-making? After all, Cardinal Sarah and Thomas Merton are and were prolific writers. That God asks people to break silence is not in question. And artists who want to earn a living from their art cannot entirely avoid marketing tools like social media. Either we must peddle our wares or hire someone to do it for us.
Answer: contemplare, first. We pray because God loves us and we love him. From this flows our vocation. Silence places us in the presence of the Divine. It makes space for deep thought and inspiration. It allows us to engage others, meet life’s demands, and even take care of worldly practicalities while maintaining peace of heart. Finally, through silence we grow in humility, so that we might focus not on ourselves but on our art, the fruit of our contemplation.
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