Lenten silence

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Repost from 2015

He who has the word of Jesus can truly listen also to his silence, in order to be perfect, that he may act through his speech and be known by his silence. — St. Ignatius of Antioch

After I had given a talk on the vocation of Catholic laity to be salt, light and leaven in the world, a couple came up to me afterward and asked, “You mentioned a ‘disease of noise’ in our culture that Christians should see themselves as the antidote to. What did you mean by that?” I offered a few thoughts, which I wrote down later.

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We live in the noisiest culture in human history. Not just audible sound, but sensory overload. Our five senses have little silence. Think of it — we are soaked in constant artificial stimulation, bombarded with advertisements and unfiltered information, all of it carving into our neural pathways high speed compulsive needs for stimulation, distraction, entertainment, the latest update. Information overload in a post-truth age. And we’ve developed an addict’s itch. Do you feel it? It’s inhuman.

How can we relax, rest, refresh or heal our weary minds? Have meaningful relationships? Think deeply or pray? We can’t.

Fr. Tom Hopko said back in the 1990’s that, in our post-human age, people are becoming “nothing but brains and bodies, computers and consumers, calculators and copulators.” Unless we become aware of what’s happening and attend to the effects this unfiltered input is having on us, we are going to continue to lose our humanity.

The practice of silence is a key to the recovery of our awareness. It is the asceticism for our age.

I know a now-retired therapist who used to prescribe to every new client at the end of their very first counseling session thirty minutes of undistracted silence to begin each day. She would hand-write the prescription, which would say something like:

Thirty minutes of undistracted silence every day. And in the last five minutes write down in your journal all the thoughts and feelings that surfaced. Then bring these to the next session.

She said she started this because she noticed throughout the late 1990’s into the 2000’s, people were having increasingly greater difficulty paying attention and self-reflecting, because of their entanglement in various emerging technologies. And without attention and self-reflection, she argued, psychological, moral and spiritual maturation is impossible. She also said she believed the culture of noise was feeding mental illnesses, especially anxiety, and especially in young people.

Silence opens an inner space for creativity, and for the mind to rest, defrag and heal. It also allows painful and pleasurable memories to surface, bubbling emotions to settle and attachments to reveal themselves — which we often immediately suppress or avert by distracting, busying or anesthetizing ourselves. Only when given permission in silence does the soul show to us its true colors, and only in that “showing” can God freely speak into us words of pardon and peace.

Anthony Bloom says that one of the greatest gifts that comes from remaining in undistracted silence is exposing the raw truth of our inner emptiness. One who is willing to resist the urge to run from the unsettling discovery of his inner wasteland, and who instead chooses to remain in the ashes, approaches the threshold of genuine prayer “out of the depths” (Ps. 130:1). But those who quickly complain about the boredom or distractions that assail them as they sit still, fail to appreciate they have only begun to taste the extent of their inner poverty. They must, Bloom says, be willing to remain there in the poverty, and endure before the face of God, if they wish to be granted entry to the kingdom of God that is deep deep within.

A Bishop I know said when celibacy becomes especially difficult for him, instead of turning to busy-work, entertainment, food or drink, he just sits in silence before the tabernacle and lets the temptations “burn through me in his presence, sometimes to tears.” He added, “It’s always painful at the time, but it allows me to feel my full humanity and keeps me humble and dependent on the Lord.”

Silence cultivates attention to details, smelling flowers, noticing insignificant things that communicate essential things. Silence opens a spacious inner meadow in which the soul can play.

Silence allows vulnerability in relationships. If you can’t be quiet with a friend, a spouse, a child, you are overlooking a crucial dimension of intimacy. My therapist friend also has couples who reach an impasse in a counseling session sit in silence and look at each other for up to a minute. She said the freedom opened up by the silence, and the intimacy of direct eye contact, inevitably dissolves whatever barriers were standing between them.

Silence is the tacit relinquishing of control, allowing reality to be itself. Compulsive talkers and noise addicts are afraid reality isn’t enough, that they aren’t enough. They think silence is just an empty space, like a box. But silence is a hunger for reality, like a stomach. For the reality of goodness, truth, beauty, found above all in the human face. Silence is a wordless “Let it be.”

Cardinal Sarah from Guinea has astutely analyzed our age’s dis-ease:

Postmodernity is an ongoing offense and aggression against the divine silence. From morning to evening, from evening to morning, silence no longer has any place at all; the noise tries to prevent God himself from speaking. In this hell of noise, man disintegrates and is lost; he is broken up into countless worries, fantasies, and fears. In order to get out of these depressing tunnels, he desperately awaits noise so that it will bring him a few consolations. Noise is a deceptive, addictive, and false tranquilizer. This age detests the things that silence brings us to: encounter, wonder, and kneeling before God.

We Christians carry within us this great treasure — a God who eternally listens in silence. If you turn everything off right now, you can hear him listening. Shh, Psalm 86:1 is happening, “Incline your ear, O Lord.” Allow now Psalm 40:6 to happen, “Ears open you have dug for me.”

In prayer we learn his silence, in life we live its fruits.

We Christians are to be known as hesychasts, those-who-bear-an-inner-stillness. It’s our cultural revolution, creating oases of silence. We Christians are to be known as those who listen well and long, who have enduring attention spans, revere the significance of the insignificant and are free to love as we are not chained by sensory addiction.

Our words are few in number, but great in power because they come from listening to our children, our spouse, our parents, our friends, our co-workers, all we encounter.

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Lent draws near.
Deny your senses, have them fast.
Carve out silence in your life.
Unplug it from your ears.
In your car, turn it off.
Keep it far away from your bedroom, and just be still.
When you take walk, just don’t bring it.
Listen instead to the wind, the birds, the cars, the children.
Notice the hidden things.
Trust God speaks mostly without words.
Out of the reservoir of your silence
feed those hungriest to be heard,
and endure long with those hardest to hear.
Open your prayer to include hearing him speak
in your neighbor. He says to you,
“I was lonely and you listened to me.
Amen, I say to you, inasmuch as you listened
to one of the least of these my brethren,
you listened to me.”

3 comments on “Lenten silence

  1. Marta says:

    Funny I was pondering Ash Wednesday this morning and Lent approaching. I hadn’t yet given enough thought to what I had prepared to do for our Lord. These thoughts this morning were perfect. After my prayer time He led me to this and it was no coincidence of course. I lost my son just a little over a year ago and in the silence of the dark after not sleeping that first night I realized my littleness and my thoughts cried out to him “You lead I’ll follow.” I had nothing else to give. Thank you for this. I am eternally grateful. I have just begun reading Cardinal Sarah’s book. It will be my companion thru these 40 days. God bless you and Happy Lent to all. Silence is truly Golden.

    • Mike says:

      I am so sorry about the death of your son! I hope you he draws near you in the silence of your heart. What was your son’s name so I can pray for him by name?

    • I am so very sorry to hear you lost your son, Marta. May God walk with you and your family as you continue on, and grant him eternal joy. Thank you for sharing that and for reading here.

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