The topic of silence has grown in popularity on social media in recent months. This is especially true in light of the various pieces written on Cardinal Sarah’s brilliant book, The Strength of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise. Silence is an important topic. We are inundated with noise. This noise is not only an assault on our auditory faculties, but on our senses as a whole. The world wants to keep us distracted, busy, and living with a constant din buzzing in our ears. Why? Noise is a tool that the world and Satan use to keep us from God. It is easy to drown Him out in our daily lives by remaining focused on the endless onslaught. In reality, we cannot make serious progress in the spiritual life without silence. Saints are made in silence. It is through silence before the great mystery of God that we enter more deeply into communion with the Most Holy Trinity. That communion is what we are moving closer towards in each moment of every single day. It is in that communion that we will find beatitudo (happiness) and Heaven.
The Church understands our desperate need for silence. It is fitting that our liturgical year begins in a season of silence and waiting. As the late fall evenings lengthen towards the darkness of winter, we become more aware of the silence and stillness that are a part of the natural order of things. Creation seems to go into its own period of waiting. It is easy for us to miss what is going on around us in the busyness of the secular Christmas season. As we run around shopping for countless gifts—many of which, let’s face it, are unnecessary—attend parties, write Christmas cards, decorate our homes, and move about with frenetic energy, we can miss not only what is going on around us in Creation, but what is going on in the Church.
Advent is about to begin. As I have written before, it is an often missed, ignored, and over-looked liturgical season. In the Latin Rite it is still a penitential season, but not in a manner nearly as pronounced as with our Eastern Rite brothers and sisters. It can be easy for us to forget that Christmas is not upon us quite yet. Rather, we too are invited to enter into a period of waiting. This waiting requires regular periods of silence. In reality, we are always waiting for the Parousia (Second Coming), but Advent is the time when we are told to focus on silence and waiting. This is a difficult spiritual practice. Many of our cultures are already neck-deep in Christmas cheer and so it can be hard to live Advent, but in doing so, the joy of Christmas will be even greater.
Lack of silence is evident in the agitation of our culture
A good many of us loathe shopping this time of year. I am not much of a shopper in general, but I will admit that I dislike it even more in late-November and December. The reason being is that people are supposed to be filled with Christmas cheer and joy — at least that’s what Christmas specials keep telling us — but instead are rude, angry, and unpleasant. I worked retail at Christmas and it is miserable. I go out of my way to be kind to the retail workers I encounter on my limited holiday shopping trips. I know how hard it is this time of year. The question is: Where does this general unpleasant moodiness coming from?
Much of the problem is the lack of silence and overall busyness of the season. We’ve replaced authentic joy and anticipation with materialist expectations on a colossal scale. The focus for far too many of us is on buying things and getting the perfect gift. In doing so, we forget Who we are preparing for during the Advent season. Gifts are fine and good within reason, but they are in no way the emphasis of Christmas. Advent would be much more peaceful, still, and beautiful if we focused on the fact that we are waiting for the King in the manger and we are waiting for Our King to return. We need to enter into that waiting by spending time in silence with Him daily, or our souls will inevitably become disordered and we will be agitated and miserable by the time Christmas Eve Mass begins.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI discussed the struggle with tension in our culture on a visit to the Carthusians back in 2011: “The lack of silence in contemporary society is making many people’s lives “more agitated and at times convulsed.” If we do not have moments of ordering ourselves to God each day and if we do not spend time in silence before God, then our lives quickly become directed by the occurrences of our day or the demands that either we place upon ourselves or others place upon us.
This is a very real problem, especially during this time of year. Our society has certain expectations of the Christmas season, which by-in-large are goods in themselves. There are aspects that are opposed to our Catholic faith, especially consumerism and materialism. If we allow these expectations to rule our lives rather than enter into the silent presence of God, then we will become dissatisfied, find false expectations, and miss out on the joy God wants us to receive on Christmas. If you are burned out by December 24th, it could be eased by living out Advent and then Christmas properly. Without periods of silent waiting for Christ, we will rob ourselves of the true joy of Christmas. Gifts, trees, lights, cookies, delicious dinners, and even time with friends and family are fleeting. Our joy comes from Christ alone.
The solution is to spend time in silence during Advent
When we decide to begin celebrating Christmas is a matter of our own prudential judgment. In my family we do not decorate for Christmas until Gaudete Sunday or the 4th Sunday of Advent. My parish priest recently told me that there is some tradition in the Church to begin decorating after the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception or when the O Antiphons begin leading up to Christmas. Regardless of when we decide to begin decorating and celebrating Christmas, it is crucial that we spend some time waiting in silence during Advent. We can decorate the Christmas tree on one hand and spend time in silence praying on the other. Zenit reported on Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s words in 2005:
“[Silence] is so lacking in this world which is often too noisy, which is not favorable to recollection and listening to the voice of God. In this time of preparation for Christmas, let us cultivate interior recollection so as to receive and keep Jesus in our lives.”
Periods of silence in our daily lives allow us to see more clearly how God is working in our daily lives. God woos us daily whether it be through beauty, other people, the Mass, or many other ways. Silence allows us to be attuned to God’s love. When we enter into the period of waiting and silence in Advent, we are able to prepare our hearts and minds to receive the Savior at Christmas, as well as in our daily lives. If we are so focused on the trimmings and the material aspects of Christmas, then we will miss out on the real gift given to us on Christmas. Jesus Christ is that gift and we will find Him waiting for us on the altar at Mass on Christmas. It is through the silence of this Advent season that we will be truly ready to receive the joy of Christmas. Make silence a daily part of Advent.