In the Silence

Amy Welborn is a columnist for Our Sunday Visitor and Catholic News Service and a regular contributer to the Living Faith quarterly devotional.

But other times, when I'm just awake enough, and I really don't feel like sleeping with him on the crook of my arm the rest of the night, I drag myself downstairs and nurse him there, trying to stay awake for a few minutes in the silence.

It fascinates me, at these moments, how absolutely quiet it is, and I'm not just talking about inside the house. It’s the outdoor silence that absorbs me. It's so quiet that when a train passes, two miles away, the rush of it going down the track, something that happens during the day, but I never happen to hear, it sounds as if it's chugging right through our backyard.

At those moments, I understand that there's a lot more noise out there than I realize. I don't even notice it during the day – if you asked me, I'd say we lived in a quiet neighborhood, and we do. But there must be noise, because the nighttime is so noticeably quiet. It’s traffic, mostly, but it’s also the cumulative effect of hundreds of doors opening and closing, thousands of voices raised, tens of thousands of hands searching through bags, keys jangling and perhaps even millions of insects creeping, buzzing and birds flapping their wings. I couldn’t pick it apart during the day if I tried, but it’s there, nonetheless.

When we pray, we think we’re listening to God. We think it’s quiet enough to hear.

But is it? What’s really going on?

Is what we call quiet really just the drone of the self, so close to us we don’t recognize it for what it is?

We may think we’re alert to God’s voice and God’s will, but what we’re really seeking is confirmation of our own will to do as we please.

We may believe that the judgmental, condemning voice we sense within is God’s, but is it? Could it really be the din of other, merely human voices on an ancient tape running through our bruised spirits from childhood, masking the truth of God’s compassionate, accepting love?

Or has the voice of God speaking through our conscience been completely replaced by the assurances of a consumerist, self-indulgent culture.

In his great novel, Silence, the Japanese Catholic writer Shusaku Endo tells the story of a 16th-century European fleeing from, and ultimately facing, persecution in Japan. Throughout the tale, the voice of God grows increasingly faint to Rodrigues, particularly as he confronts the vexing situation of Christian peasants being tortured for a faith they barely understand. As he and the peasants endure greater and greater suffering, the silence of God becomes more profound, with no answer to the question of why.

Until the end, in a startling, perhaps controversial moment when Christ speaks, instructing Rodrigues to do something that seems to violate his faith. Or, we are forced to ask, maybe not. Maybe the reason Rodrigues heard nothing for so long was that his cultural presuppositions would not allow him to hear God as He is, only God as Rodrigues wanted Him to be.

If we’re serious about our relationship with God, we have to continually ask ourselves the same question, but perhaps on a less dramatic level.

Are we even aware of how much noisy our spirits really are? Or have we just grown so accustomed to the continual drone of the world that we don't even know it's there, muffling and distorting the voice of God we're so confident that we hear, only to be startled when it rushes by us like a train in a very silent night, unfamiliar, yet at last unmistakable?

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