Earlier this month, Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, wrote an essay about the role of silence in the Mass, our sanctification, and our interior lives (the entire piece can be found here).
As anyone hanging on here at the dawn of the 21st century knows, silence in any form—interior or exterior—often seems mythic in nature. The Sasquatch of Silence, it seems at times, an elusive thing, which, if it exists at all, leaves behind nothing but the most ambiguous of marks. Still, we long for it, even if we can’t articulate what “it” is, awash as we are in a sea of noise. We are all Fox Mulder of X-Files fame—we want to believe, we want to participate, but it’s just so darn loud.
Yet the siren song (albeit a noiseless one) of silence continues. Cardinal Sarah lists numerous benefits of silence, coupled with pitfalls of its absence. It’s the things people of a spiritual bent already know, but hate to contemplate. That prayer is essentially silence. That the servant should never say to the Master, “Listen, for your servant speaks”. That there are a number of clear warnings in the Bible about the dangers of careless chatter.
Perhaps no one has put it as bluntly as St. John of the Cross, who wrote, “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 by the soul.”
The arguments are too good to ignore. So, in the penitential spirit of Lent, I thought I’d go undercover for all of you, to find solid, no-fail ways of integrating some holy silence into your daily, modern life. After all, as a stay-at-home mother to six children, if I could find some ways to dim the noise and allow silence to bump into my soul, then anyone could.
Firstly, I looked at those initial moments of wakefulness. I tried to extend the “Great Silence” of my domestic monastery’s night as long as I could upon reentry into the waking world. Instead of starting the day with the internal recitation of the “to-do list” litany, I gave thanks to God for another morning, asked Him to make this a nice, quiet day, and then, to the best of my ability, just shut up.
Shutting up, as it turns out, is really hard. While the good Cardinal, in his essay, says this about achieving interior silence, “it can achieved by the absence of memories, plans, interior speech, worries…. Still more important, thanks to an act of the will, it can result from the absence of disordered affections or excessive desires,” it did not actually come as easily as it sounds (and it doesn’t even sound that easy). For the first couple days, I tried to will myself to think nothing. I tried to make my mind as still as glass. I tried to silence everything.
It never worked. I’d remember a meeting I had to prep for. I’d hear one of the kids stirring in a bedroom, and pray that they’d hold off running into my room and jumping on my bed until I’d coaxed 30 seconds of silence out of my brain. Next thing I knew, I was back on the list of everything that I needed to get done that day, and silence was the farthest thing from my mind.
But then, it hit me. Quieting our brains down is hard. Like, beyond our ability to do it-type hard. And we know that when spiritually efficacious, yet impossible tasks are set before us, we can only get them done one way: by calling on Christ to be strong for us.
So the third morning, I tried a different approach. Instead of willing my dumb brain to pipe down, instead I put my chatterbox mind right there in front of Jesus. I put myself right there in His presence- the very Word of God, and held my attention there for as long as I could.
And with that, there was silence. I wasn’t going over my to-do list, I wasn’t dumping my to-do list on Jesus’ lap and calling it prayer time. I was simply focusing my attention on being with Christ, and silence was the natural product of that encounter. This was a total game changer. For the next couple of days, every time I found my interior world becoming more and more charged with noise and babble, I took a deep breath, and deliberately put myself in Christ’s presence- even if only as long as a traffic light.
There is so much external noise that it seems overwhelming to dampen it. Even if we shut off our phones and turn off our radios and ship all our family, friends, and coworkers to another location, there is still so much ambient sound in this modern life. It is, quite simply, beyond our control. But internal silence! That is something we can all cultivate this Lent, to place ourselves in front of the Father and to focus on His Word, to focus on Christ as long as we can, and then to carry that silence forward with us into the noisy world.