In a recent interview, Cardinal Robert Sarah reminds us once again of the need for silence in our lives. He explains: “God is silence, and this divine silence dwells within a human being. By living with the silent God, and in Him, we ourselves become silent. Nothing will more readily make us discover God than this silence inscribed at the heart of our being.” Silence allows us to hear the Word of God within our hearts. In the midst of our culture filled with constant noise and distractions, we must learn to cultivate silence in our lives, especially interior silence. It is fitting to reflect on this theme of silence in this month of October, which is dedicated to our Lady, because she is the exemplary model of receiving the Word of God in silence. Taking the Blessed Mother as an example, there are three steps we shall note in our encounter with the Word of God: listening, receiving, and pondering.
The Scriptures themselves reveal to us that God speaks to man in silence. God spoke to Elijah not in a strong wind, earthquake, or fire. Rather, we read that, “after the fire [there was] a still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave” (1 Kings 19:12-13). The Lord was not in the great noise from the other natural events; rather, Elijah needed to be listening to the small voice, the voice of the all-powerful, omnipotent God. Had Elijah been distracted or absorbed in himself, he would have missed the quiet voice. We see the silence of God once again at the Cross, as Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Verbum Domini. Benedict XVI writes: “As the cross of Christ demonstrates, God also speaks by his silence. The silence of God, the experience of the distance of the almighty Father, is a decisive stage in the earthly journey of the Son of God, the incarnate Word” (art. 21). Here, Benedict XVI is referring to the silence of God when we are not aware of his presence, but this silence is not wholly different from the silence that Elijah experienced. Even though God appears to be silent as his Son died on the cross, he was there—he was with his Son on the cross. For this reason, we must learn to cultivate silence within ourselves so that we can know when God is there, even when he is silent. We need to be listening, even when it seems that, because of his silence, he is completely distant from us.
The Blessed Mother gives us the perfect model of listening in the Lord’s silence, particularly at the Annunciation. In many paintings of the Annunciation, the Blessed Mother appears to have been reading or contemplating the moments prior to the angel Gabriel’s message, and this is not just mere coincidence. (We see this in Giotto’s “Annunciation” and Rogier van der Weyden’s “Annunciation Triptych”). While we do not know from the Scriptures what she was doing, tradition has handed down to us that she was listening—she was listening for the Word of her Lord. In an essay entitled “Incarnate of the Virgin: ‘You are Full of Grace,’” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger quotes Theodotus of Ancyra: “It was through hearing that Mary, the prophetess, conceived the living God. For the natural path of discourse is the ear” (Credo for Today: What Christians Believe, Ignatius Press, 2009, p. 64). Commenting on this idea, Ratzinger writes, “Having become pure hearing; she receives the Word so totally that it becomes flesh in her” (Ibid). The proper way to receive the Word of God is to listen, and the Blessed Mother, conceived without sin, could listen most closely—so closely that the Word became flesh within her.
Secondly, when we listen to the Word, we must also be willing to receive it in silence. It is a great mystery and a paradox that the Word is spoken in silence—consider the hushed silence of the world when the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The Word was spoken, the Word had become man, but within the silence and the protection of the Blessed Mother’s womb. In Verbum Domini, Benedict XVI writes about the need to receive the Word of God: “Only in silence can the word of God find a home in us, as it did in Mary, woman of the word, and inseparably, woman of silence. Our liturgies must facilitate this attitude of authentic listening: Verbo crescent, verba deficiunt [When the word of God increases, the words of men fail]” (art. 66). Because the Blessed Mother was listening for the Word, she was able to receive him into her womb and into her heart. When we listen to the Word, we must likewise be willing to receive what we hear. For Benedict XVI, this ability to hear and receive the Word comes about through the liturgy. In the liturgy, we encounter Christ in the Word and in the Eucharist, and it is here that we receive him into our minds and into our hearts. If the liturgy is oriented toward an atmosphere of silence, we, like the Blessed Mother, will be able to receive him in a proper way.
Finally, we must ponder the Word of God in our hearts. There are two instances where we see the Blessed Mother pondering the Word of God. The first is at the Annunciation, when Gabriel gives her the message that she will be the Mother of God: “But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29). In her great humility, the Blessed Mother did not fully understand the angel’s message, but at the same time, she was prepared to accept the gift from her Lord. Second, after Jesus is lost for three days and found in the temple among the teachers, we read, “His mother kept all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51). The Blessed Mother pondered the words of her Son and his actions—she contemplatively receives his Word into her mind and heart.
In Verbum Domini, Benedict XVI writes of how our modern age is lacking this spirit of recollection. “Our is not an age which fosters recollection; at times one has the impression that people are afraid of detaching themselves, even for a moment, from the mass media” (art. 66). Unlike the Blessed Mother, we are very attached to minute distractions that prevent us from hearing and pondering the Word of God. As such, “Rediscovering the centrality of God’s word in the life of the Church also means rediscovering a sense of recollection and inner repose” (Ibid). To hear and receive the Word of God, so that we might ponder it in our hearts like the Blessed Mother, we need to learn how to recollect. We need to learn how to sit with the Word of God contemplatively, leaving aside our daily duties and concerns. For us in the modern day, this means turning off our phones, computers, and other technological devices and praying in a place separate from them. The very presence of technological devices keeps us from truly being open to the Word of God because they so easily distract us. If we learn how to sit in the silence with the Word of God (through an exercise such as lectio divina, for example), we will also be able to ponder what our Lord is saying to us, just as the Blessed Mother did. And if we are patient, we will learn how to carry that attitude of recollection and pondering with us throughout the day, so that we are ready and willing to hear the Lord’s voice in everything we do.
Benedict XVI closes Verbum Domini by recalling Elizabeth’s words to the Blessed Mother, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Luke 1:45). He comments on this verse, saying, “Mary is blessed because she has faith, because she believed, and in this faith she received the Word of God into her womb in order to give him to the world. The joy born of the Word can now expand to all those who, by faith, let themselves be changed by God’s word” (art. 124). When Mary received the Word of God, she did so not just for herself, but also for the whole world. Mary became the vehicle by which all men received God’s light and salvation. In a similar way, when we listen, receive, and ponder the Word of the Lord, we can become the vehicle by which others receive his Word and his joy. Through our reception of the Word, we can become the means of bringing the joy of the Lord to the rest of the world. Thus, let us wait in silence, listening for the Word of God, that we might receive him and bring him to the rest of our grieving world, hungry for the everlasting love of God.