Sweet, sweet silence

Silence is golden. Maybe that was true in the 14th century, but hardly today. Ideas of that age were formed in images, maybe in fresco, tapestry or hand-printed books. In our time, they are encapsulated in sound! “Once the air was filled with music,” composer Peter Maxwell-Davies said, “now it is filled with noise. The young have never heard silence.” One scientist has estimated that 70 percent of sound that assaults our ears is technological (machines, traffic, phones, music) and only 30 percent is natural: wind, water, animals, or the call of the spouse.

And it is hard to eliminate noise. Making telephone calls, you are put on hold for minutes and unbidden strange guitars, drums, lyrics pound your ears. Even elevators offer serenades. All around us is the chatter from the cell phone users, and pulsing music from cars with windows down assuming you share the driver’s taste.

We from the “pre-cell phone” era have the experience of walking down the street and thinking there is a crazy person ahead, babbling away, often vigorously gesturing. No, it is a person on a cell phone. Business, office or social, is constantly conducted where once we could walk reflectively down the street. Without silence one has little talent or time for forming one’s own thoughts or opinions. In a day filled with the comments of Bill O’Reilly or Tim Russert, our opinions are set by their lights, our reflections bottled up for another time. Yet we seek to form independent minds in keeping with the tenets of our Church. Our faith is tried to its roots as we compare the words of the savior, “Follow Me,” with those of the allegedly real world in which we live.

Consider the painting. Words are less; vision is more. Mainly a painting keeps the viewer silent. Although no sign bids us be quiet, religious art compels stillness. Ignoring the oxymoron of still life, art speaks without sound. The unspoken is mighty whether between lovers, old friends, or priest and penitent. The unspoken signals another level of communication and understanding. But for most of us, there is precious little quiet, let alone silence.

Do we create noise because silence reminds us of our mortality? The eternal silence of the grave? As Catholics we do not believe in empty eternal silence. Yet there is no doubt silence awakens us to hear the penetrating whisper “the soul that sins, it shall die.” Silence opens the ear to more than wind, to the still small voice of God. Maybe silence should be sought after, valued and profited from. Blessed Mother Teresa has said: “Silence of our eyes, Silence of our ears, Silence of our mouths, Silence of our minds... in the silence of the heart God will speak.”

The Mass has become less meditative and full of sound. It follows the times. Pauses are hard put to gain their place. There are rumors that changes in the liturgy are coming, which allow for periods of reflections on readings and sermons.

Author and speaker Father John A. Hardon, SJ gave some insight into gathering our wits: “Learn the secret of silence and develop the art of mental prayer.” In this way, he assured us we can never be bored or in need of some noise to fill the air.

Silence is a modern witness. If we in our day are to imitate Christ, we must not be seduced by the prevalent notion of communication. Implicit in the modern sense is that the only source of information is from another person. Father Hardon proposed taking time out from talk with other people and seeking periods and places of silence. This is not an easy task. The way to follow Christ is to imitate His virtues. How else can we survive in a de-Christianized age?: In a world where the self is idolized we must imitate humility; where lust is canonized, we must practice chastity; where the pursuit of pleasure and wealth is idolized, Catholics must exercise sacrifice and charity.

Houses of retreat practice the rule of silence as a way to prayer. We mention two locations which are nearby. Arnold Hall [www.arnoldhall.org] is a retreat house in an exquisitely peaceful setting in North Pembroke, Mass. The retreats are conducted by priests of Opus Dei. Also, the Benedictine Abbey of Still River [www.abbey.org] is a setting of silence, prayer and hospitality. The abbey is near Harvard, Mass. Benedictine rule itself is a reservoir of spiritual ideas. Benedict of Nursia wrote a guide, called The Rule, about 15 centuries ago for Christians who sought to live, work and pray together. The spiritual values of contemplation, hospitality, and simplicity are as significant today as they were centuries ago.

Without leaving home we can find ways to establish silence. As a way of protecting our families from the onslaught of the “real world,” we can create an inner sanctum, at times silent where we hear our quiet thoughts. The obvious one, of course, is practicing “turn off,” as in “turn off the iPod, the radio, the TV.” Further, an hour a week for starters when the family sits quietly, reads, prays the rosary would help. This time also provides parents a refuge from clamor to reset their own inner states. Children would learn how to measure their ideas and how to find the stillness in prayer. A crucial lesson from this exercise is to learn that some wisdom does not come from friends and teachers, but some comes from within.

In profound silence, we hear good news.

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited “Why I Am Still a Catholic” [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.