At Christmas, God speaks to us in a way far more profound and mysterious than any other kind of speech known to man: He communicates to us through the Word made flesh.
The task of Advent, which is just weeks away, is to prepare for hearing this Word of God.
I would like to suggest that one of the most important ways of doing this is through cultivating silence. For Catholics this advice might have the ring of truth to it, but it is also completely counter-cultural. For this time of year is very much a season of noise — Salvation Army Santas ringing their bells, bustling shoppers, the cacophony of airports teeming with travelers, and, eventually, family crowding around a Christmas tree or dinner table.
And yet silence is vital to living out our faith during Advent. I believe this is the case because of the intimate relationship between listening and silence in the context of Advent. An essential precondition of receiving of the Word of God made flesh is that we are actually listening and looking out for Him.
This habit of expectant listening is very different than the kind of listening we experience in our daily lives. In the instance of the latter, our listening begins when the other person starts speaking. In expectant listening this dynamic is reversed: the listening begins before the speaking does. In fact, it is possible that this sort of listening occurs before the other person has even arrived. It is thus at once radically passive and proactive.
Such expectant listening presupposes silence. Normally if you want to listen to someone then you must be quiet. You hold your tongue and they take their turn. Under these circumstances we listen but our listening meets with speech, not silence. With expectant listening it is different. We listen but the other has not started talking yet. In that moment, we encounter a profound silence.
This kind of silence, as distressing as it may be, is an essential condition of experiencing the joyful arrival of the one you have been awaiting — and that is what Advent is all about. Arrival, or advent, presupposes absence.
In The Dark Night of the Soul, St. John of the Cross sees this silence as also being purgative. The general idea is that the soul must be stripped of its earthly attachments and purified of its passions and selfish desires. This mortification of the soul is both symbolized and achieved in the denial of the senses. Thus, much as the darkness of the night mortifies our sense of sight, so also does silence to our sense of hearing. As St. John of the Cross puts it, in referring to the ‘low operations, passions, and desires’ of the soul,
And thus it would be meet that their operations and motions should be put to sleep in this night, to the end that they may not hinder the soul from attaining the supernatural blessings of the union of love of God, for, while these are alive and active, this cannot be. For all their work and their natural motions hinder, rather than aid, the soul’s reception of the spiritual blessings of the union of love, inasmuch as all natural ability is impotent with respect to the supernatural blessings that God, by means of His own infusion, bestows upon the soul passively, secretly and in silence. And thus it is needful that all the faculties should receive this infusion, and that, in order to receive it, they should remain passive, and not interpose their own base acts and vile inclinations (14.1).
But there is also a positive aspect to silence. It does not just mute those noisy parts of our souls, bickering for our attention. Silence both removes barriers to encountering God and serves as a bridge to that encounter.
This is because it is in silence that God experiences Himself in the life of the Trinity. The Word is not ‘spoken’ in the same sense that words are spoken by us. There is always a sort of delay for us — a series of steps that must take place. We conceive a thought and then we translate that thought into some bits of speech that our nervous and muscular system work convey from our minds to our mouths, ending in a sequence of audible sounds.
However, there is no such delay for God. There is no sequence of events that takes place between His thinking and the pronouncement of His Word, as St. Augustine taught. God’s knowledge of Himself is immediate and complete—analogous to the sort of silent correspondence our thoughts and the words we come up with in our minds to represent them. Put another way, just as God in His essence cannot be seen, neither can He be heard.
This is why the Word Incarnate speaks most profoundly to us in His silence. It is the silence of His Sacred Heart, pouring forth blood and water from His pierced side. It is the ‘great silence’ that fell over the earth as the King slept during Holy Saturday. And it is the silence that continues to call out for us today in the Eucharist.
Through Christ, then, silence becomes a shared experience: we are quiet before God and He responds in silence. Silence, when it is directed towards another person, is the quality of being completely present in one’s being to that person. God most certainly is this to Himself—and we grow closer to Him inasmuch as we are able to move towards this kind of silence in our own lives. Silence then becomes a place of encounter.
To be sure, such silence can be harrowing. We console ourselves by reminding ourselves of the truth that such silence is a precursor to hearing God talk to us in His Word. And this is certainly true. But the reality of God’s silence suggests another more immediate consolation: the truth that He is also listening to us, our sufferings, our needs, our deepest yearnings. No words are necessary for God knows the silent desires of our hearts, as Psalm 139 indicates.
Silence thus makes possible a deeper communion with God—a sharing in His stillness in which He teaches us wisdom in the ‘secret of our hearts’ (Psalm 51:6).
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