Be Counter-Cultural, Embrace Silence

We live in a world inundated with noise; not just auditory noise, but visual noise as well. Our lives are surrounded by a constant din. Our phones ding constantly with text messages, emails, and other notifications. The television is constantly on in many homes as we continue to tell ourselves that we must watch this show or that show. Kids, teenagers, and adults spend most of their days transfixed on the glow of a computer, tablet, or cell phone. Signs, advertisements, and the siren call of materialism and consumerism barrage us whenever we set foot outside of our home or even when we search on the Internet.

We are so accustomed to this noise that we often don’t even realize that it is constantly there in most moments of our daily lives. This constant noise is a serious problem and a great hindrance to our spiritual lives. In order to progress in holiness, we must — a real must — find silence both exteriorly and interiorly at the deepest levels of ourselves so that we can enter into the great mysteries of God.

Saints are created in silence

Saints are made in the silence. We admire people like St. Teresa of Calcutta and St. John Paul II who radiated holiness, joy, and peace while here on earth. They were out in the world serving the poor and the Church. The problem is, we often focus on their actions, but we ignore the fact that their holiness and charity sprang forth from silence. Both of these saints had lives of intense prayer in silence. St. Teresa of Calcutta spent hours in silent Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament and St. John Paul II had the ability to enter into contemplative prayer while standing before a million people precisely because he lived a life of silence before God. The prayer lives of these two saints is what made them holy and which led them out to serve in the world.

Cardinal Sarah’s book The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise is a much-needed book for our age. It is radical, even though it would not have been considered counter-cultural in previous ages when silence was a normal part of daily living and the spiritual life. In reading the book, our Western sensibilities may bristle, but this is exactly what we need. I think for many people a spirit of rebellion will spring up when first reading the book. This rebellion comes from the Father of Lies because he does not want us to enter more deeply into silence. Noise is easier. Distraction is easier. It keeps us from our existential angst, loneliness, and spiritual combat. Cardinal Sarah points out: “Sounds and emotions detach us from ourselves, whereas silence always forces man to reflect upon his own life.” It is much easier to follow the whims of our emotions and intemperate desires than it is to enter into silence, but enter into it we must.

Silence surrounds us

Silence is all around us if we pay attention. Our children grow and mature in silence. How often does a parent look at their child in astonishment to see that they have become taller or their face has changed in a way that makes them look older? The flowers grow out of the silent dirt upwards towards the sun and then open in silence. They radiate the silence of their Creator.

The sun rises and sets in silence and the planets circle the sun in silence. Cardinal Sarah even points out that while the words of consecration by the priest call down the Holy Spirit to bring about the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Our Lord, the actual change is done in silence. Our Lord sits silently in His Eucharistic Presence in the Tabernacles of the world waiting for each one of us to spend time in silence with Him. This is the entire purpose of Eucharistic Adoration, to enter into the deep silence of God.

Silence teaches us about God and ourselves

We do not know ourselves very well. We struggle to understand or even consider our motives and reasons for certain sins, weaknesses, or failings in our daily lives. We often attribute things to ourselves that are untrue, unrealistic, or faulty. Frequent Confession often reveals to us our utter weakness and need for God, but if we do not spend time in silence through prayer and learning the art of being, then we will continue to make the same mistakes. Silence with God teaches us about ourselves and about God. By entering into silence each day, we allow God to dwell within us at the deepest levels of our being. We are able to learn about Him and His great mystery which always leaves us speechless. The human experience of God is to truly stand in silent awe. This is precisely why St. Thomas Aquinas stopped writing and compared his works to “mere straw” when he experienced a profound mystical encounter with God. Eventually we all must come to silence because our words can never do justice to God.

We must learn to be

God is “to be” itself, St. Thomas Aquinas tells us. He is being itself. In order to truly rest with “to be” we must learn to be. In our daily lives of noise and distraction, we very seldom spend time being. We are uncomfortable with the thought of it. We consider it to be a waste of time. “There is so much to do!”, the Martha’s of the world cry; even though we are called to find the balance between Martha and Mary. The latter teaches us how to be and how to rest in the Lord’s presence. It is in fact possible to be and be doing something, but not always necessary. We need periods of stillness and silence each day.

Being is to enter into the moment, to rest in that moment, and offer it in union with God. Those of us in the laity are not called to silence of speech and monasticism in a strict sense such as that practiced by the Carthusians and Cistercians. We are called to a type of silence that is similar in kind to these religious orders in that we are called to be in each moment united to God and His great silence. We are called to pray and live in the silence of God.

This means talking less and listening more. It is to shut off the technology and pray. It is to do tasks around the house and yard in silence, to sit silently on a lake admiring God’s creation, take a walk and admire the silence of nature, and set aside time for Eucharistic Adoration or silent time at church each week, day, or month. It is to walk into Mass in silence to prepare for the great mysteries about to take place, rather than continue the din, even in our sacred spaces. It is to be still internally, and at certain needed times, exteriorly. Children naturally play in silence if we take away the technology and allow them to be (Anthony Esolen).

The more silence we allow to enter into our lives and our souls, the more God will fill us with His loving presence. The restlessness will ease. The boredom will abate. We will begin to crave silence. It may start as shutting off the radio while driving in the car or getting up early in the dark to pray. The progression will be slow–as is always the case in the spiritual life–but we will progress by the grace of the Holy Spirit.

The only way to foster silence and learn to be is through prayer in silence each day. It will be difficult. The “monkey mind” will jump from limb-to-limb convincing us that the laundry, work project, television show, Facebook post, or cheeseburger down the street is much more interesting, or worse, more important. As each thought enters our mind, we must consciously return to silence. This is done through our will and repeated discipline. As each thought enters our mind we cast it aside and return to silence.

All of the masters of silence point out how much discipline this takes, but that through perseverance we will improve. In spending time in silence with God in prayer, especially with the Word of God, we will enter into the deep peace that God provides. We will be able to go about our daily lives centered in silence even if planes, trains, and automobiles roar around us. This is a life-long task, but if we truly desire to be saints, then we must pray for the Holy Spirit to teach us how to live in silence and to lead us ever deeper into the silent mystery of our Triune God.

By

Constance T. Hull is a wife, mother, homeschooler, and a graduate student theologian with an emphasis in philosophy.  Her desire is to live the wonder so passionately preached in the works of G.K. Chesterton and to share that with her daughter and others. While you can frequently find her head inside of a great work of theology or philosophy, she considers her husband and daughter to be her greatest teachers. She is passionate about beauty, working towards holiness, the Sacraments, and all things Catholic. She is also published at The Federalist, Public Discourse, and blogs frequently at Swimming the Depths (www.swimmingthedepths.com).

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  • Bernardo Cynthia

    A very interesting and enlightening article! Yet, a great spiritual person must also have a balance of silence and some music. Great saints such as St Francis of Assisi and St Theresa of Avila has that great balance. Though they could be contemplative at times, but they can burst in sudden outbursts of praise to God. We can praise God in silence or with sacred music. Praising God, I think is the greatest thing that I have encountered in life not only in silence but in melodies that deeply pleases God. Silence is fascinating, but music could elevate one to great heights of contemplating the Face of God.

  • Constance

    I don’t think any Catholic would argue that music should be abandoned. Even the Carthusians and Cistercians chant the Liturgy of the Hours. The argument here is not total silence. It’s that we do need more exterior and interior silence in our noisy culture in order to begin fostering greater communion with God. Most people have very little silence in their lives. We need periods of silence each day, but that does not equate to the abandonment of things like beautiful music. Whether most of what passes for popular music—including so called worship music—is beautiful or not is up for debate, but sacred music is meant to draw us into the great silence and mystery of God. For some people driving may be the only time they get silence, so it is the right time to shut the radio off.

  • Bernardo Cynthia

    Good point! Yet, what I am driving out is the richness of the Charismatic Movement in this generation. It’s actually not full silence but they praise God through music with all their hearts. They are filled with the Holy Spirit. I did not mean that I do not appreciate silence, but what I meant is just a balance of silence with some vocal praise. Words are powerful. In the creation of the world, God said, “Let there be light.” It’s a matter of not drab silence but a silence of lifting one’s heart to the Lord…

  • Maura Roan McKeegan

    What a beautiful article, Constance. Thank you.

  • Constance Hull

    Maybe read Cardinal Sarah’s book. Since I lack the ability to do it justice in 1500 words. He can answer your arguments. We often talk too much. Pax Christi.

  • Constance Hull

    Thanks, Maura!

  • Bernardo Cynthia

    Talking too much is bad, that’s why I am expounding on balance. We appreciate the richness of silence and the richness of vocal praise. Pax Christi.

  • colwyn scheepers

    Thank you Constance Hull. Your article on silence reminds me how blessed I have been to have worked for close two years in the Kakadu Reserve in northern Australia. The silence there, away from home and the city, washed away the cluttered decks of some disappointments to listen for our Lord God and to see His wonder in the tropical nights. I would to add a sentiment which a not so wise Irishman shared with me, in talking about silence. He advised me conserve my silence and composure by ‘picking your fights’. Not every battle can be won.

  • Patricia Sharp

    I agree with the need for silence in our lives. Ever hear of meditation? It’s all the rage now,
    But.. the need to be politically engaged cannot be stressed too much. If good people retreat, evil ones can take over the world. Speak up.

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