“Silence is a mystery of the age to come, but words are instruments of this world.” – St. Isaac the Syrian

Some musings on silence…

I was able recently to get away for a few days on private, non-directed retreat at a Trappist monastery. It was a silent retreat.

After the first day of struggling with letting go of the web of words my life is bound up in, I found myself falling into a new experience of life, one that is much more attentive to…life. I notice, for example, that lots of the (especially yucky) “stuff” deep down inside of me – mostly held at bay by busyness and noisiness – starts to come up into my consciousness. In particular, during the 30 minutes of reflective silence the monks place in the midst of the night Office of Vigils it all comes alive with oomph: fragmented memories, random songs, to-do lists, worries all float to the surface, threatening to overthrow the stillness of my prayer. I came at them as I was taught years ago by a Trappist monk at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer: “Whatever comes into your mind during prayer, don’t engage it directly, don’t fight it; but gently lift it into God’s hands, leave it alone and return to your meditation.” It’s really miraculous.

My life is filled with an endless stream of words – mine and others’. Ours is the Communication Age, yet it seems that, in the words of William James, our endless verbiage often is no more than “as one great blooming, buzzing confusion.” Just the other day the mother of a teenage girl said to me, “My daughter’s just plain old out of control. Last month she sent and received nearly 10,000 texts. And when I look at the texts, they’re mostly a mishmash of emoji, acronyms and some silly phrases. Really? Such a waste of time.”

When I was in my teens, I had a special love for the Missing Persons’ song, Words, as the lyrics seemed to speak so eloquently of my own experience:

My lips are moving and the sound’s coming out,
The words are audible but I have my doubts
That you realize what has been said.
You look at me as if you’re in a daze;
It’s like the feeling at the end of the page
When you realize you don’t know what you just read.

What are words for
When no one listens anymore
What are words for
When no one listens
What are words for
When no one listens
There’s no use talking at all

I might as well go up and talk to a wall
‘Cause all the words are having no effect at all
It’s a funny thing, I say to myself.
Something has to happen to change the direction
What little filters through
is giving you the wrong impression;
It’s a sorry state, am I all alone?

Whenever I’m intentionally silent for a lengthy period of time, I also notice that I become much more attentive to the present moment. I cease to live principally in the past and future. I can hear the birds outside, or the ticking of the wall clock that I never noticed before. Eating becomes something meaningful, slow, nourishing. The words of the liturgy acquire more meaning and depth. I find myself more able to think clearly about many of the seemingly intractable problems in my life, and insights abound (which I write down in my journal for safe keeping). The proverb, “Silence is a fence around wisdom,” takes on great power.

I also noticed, around the third day of my retreat as I examined my conscience, that this particular saying of Jesus regarding the gravity of words took on terrifying force:

I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter (Matthew 12:36).

As did this line from St. Ignatius of Antioch:

It is better to keep silence and to be, than to talk and not to be. Teaching is only good when one does what one says.

I became newly aware of how careless so many of my words are. So many “throw away” words. I long to live the proverb a friend of mine frequently quotes: “Be silent, or say something better than silence.”

I work hard to protect in my daily life a period of silence every morning before I begin the day’s activities, but it is so tempting to slowly surrender the silence. There are just so many plausible justifications that entice me to fill time set aside with “crucial” busyness, “needful” efficiencies, “imperative” necessities. Or so the Tempter argues. A seasoned therapist I know writes as her first prescription to every patient: “30 minutes of uninterrupted quiet every day.” She tells them to write down what happens in that time, and from those notes, she says, the most important therapeutic insights come. “Lots of mental illness, I believe,” she says, “comes from our addictive, frenetic culture.”

Silence, quiet patience is needed for communion to emerge from communication. Communion refers to the deep human intimacy, face to face, that leads to a sharing of life with others; and communion among people, if it’s rooted in faith, opens up to divine intimacy.

A study in 2009 said that the average parent spends less than 3 minutes a day in non-directive communication with their children. No time. Too much to do. Keep busy, efficient, productive. Arbeit macht frei. Or slaves.

St. Francis de Sales’ admonition: “Every one of us needs half an hour of uninterrupted prayer to begin every day, except when the day will be very busy – then we require one hour.” Remaining committed to this discipline is no easy feat.

My now-deceased spiritual director used to say to me, “The only way to keep faithful to your commitment to pray is to pray for the grace to keep the commitment. I think that’s what St. Paul must have meant when he said, ‘Pray without ceasing.’ When you fall away from praying, you find yourself begging God to keep you faithful to prayer.”

Paradoxical orthodoxy.

Oh, and while on retreat, here were my two cherished cathedrals. Both so quiet.



13 comments on “Silence

  1. number one sinner says:

    What a beautiful, humble, enlightening,loving,and often to often busy man you are. Methinks thou does not protest enough. I think St. Francis ‘ really said – at least a half hour a day in prayer unless you expect a busy day then take an hour. That is of course unless your dr kneel then two or three may be required. Thank you Thomas for this particular post, one with which many many can relate. Fr. Tim Holeda speaks often of this potential epidemic. So now that you’ll be spending more time with the family maybe we can expect more pics of Micheal, Catherine, and the Pope. Love to all the Neals.P.B.W.Y.

  2. Gichon says:

    Powerful post with some great observations about silence. It shows we can live without words for a short time, grow from the experience while being decoupled from Internet technology. Next step, living without material things, at least the unnecessary ones we lean on.

  3. LP says:

    Dr Tom, Thank you so much for this reflection. On Wed I begin my annual 6-day (directed) silent retreat so your words are so very timely. I am printing it to take with me as your thoughts and insights are so inspiring. I love your pictures as I too have two special places – one a small pool in the woods along a downhill stream and the other the small Marion chapel to the side of the main chapel – by small I mean about two persons which instils such a connection with Mary.
    I am so grateful that you are back sharing your gifts with us. God bless you, LP

  4. Marilyn Hammond says:

    Tom, your words feed my soul….thank you for so many wonderful prayers and insights. Love to Patty and the kids – love when they are included in your posts! Sending love and prayers.

  5. Pat Beckett says:

    Looks like you were in our part of the world We love our silent times on retreat at the monastery in Conyers. We also found a great small retreat house in Atlanta – the Ignatian house that provides silent Jesuit retreats. We have been there to visit, but haven’t yet managed a retreat. We also find lots of time for silence in our trips to national parks – Sequoia and Acadia this year. Thanks for your insights and inspiration to never let go of the silent times in our daily life.

  6. Sandy says:

    Dr Tom

    That was AWESOME!!!!!!!!!!!

    Sandy Sanchez

  7. Angele Marie says:

    It is interesting that I received this from my former 8th grade student right when I am working on a presentation on Silence that I will be offering as part of a retreat staff for other Carmelites in July. I hope that you will allow me to give copies of your reflection for them to read after my talk. I have had to print it out in sections since my printer prints only segments of articles that are not given in attachments.
    Yes, it is difficult to be faithful for silent prayer. I desire to spend at least 20 minutes in silence each day, but fail to do so more often then I like to admit. Yet I know how important it is for knowing God and self deeper than discursive thought grants me.
    Thank you for sharing your reflections.
    Angele Marie Sadlier, O. Carm.

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