“I shall sum it up like this: by withdrawing into silence and solitude, human beings, so to speak, ‘expose’ themselves to reality in their nakedness, to that apparent ‘void’ … in order to experience instead fullness, the presence of God, of the most royal reality that exists and that lies beyond the tangible dimension. He is a perceptible presence in every created thing: in the air that we breathe, in the light that we see and that warms us, in the grass, in stones. … God, Creator omnium, [the Creator of all], passes through all things but is beyond them and for this very reason is the foundation of them all.”
“I shall sum it up like this: by withdrawing into silence and solitude, human beings, so to speak, ‘expose’ themselves to reality in their nakedness, to that apparent ‘void’ … in order to experience instead fullness, the presence of God, of the most royal reality that exists and that lies beyond the tangible dimension. He is a perceptible presence in every created thing: in the air that we breathe, in the light that we see and that warms us, in the grass, in stones. … God, Creator omnium, [the Creator of all], passes through all things but is beyond them and for this very reason is the foundation of them all.”—Pope Benedict XVI, Homily at Carthusian monastery, Oct. 10, 2011.
Among the various impoverishments that modern human beings face is that of silence. We don’t consider silence a necessity as we would food, clothing, and shelter. After all, silence is, by its very nature, a lack of something: noise. Yet, this lack of noise is not only healthy, but necessary for thinking and praying, or, to use another word, contemplation.
Without contemplation, we end up being driven by the tides of activity and noise in our external world. The commands and suggestions of the many voices and sounds that constantly hit us preoccupy our brains and souls so that there is no space left in order to reflect and become aware of God and his “still, small voice”(1 Kgs 19:12) speaking to us, or to think deeply about important things. This lack of silence and the concurrent lack of prayerful contemplation leads to a disjointed life, particularly for Christians. Without silence, we often miss God in the day-to-day events of our lives, in the beauty and wonder of the created world, and in the word of God we read and hear.
Lack of silence is an enemy of Christian vocations among the young. It is no accident that a large number of young men studying for the priesthood, and women and men entering religious life, identify adoration before the Blessed Sacrament as a key to discovering their call. While they were present in silence before Jesus, something happened—they became aware of what Jesus wanted of them. Without that window of silence—in prayer, on a retreat, anywhere—the Lord gets drowned out. There is too much competition these days for our attention.
Culturally, we have become so accustomed to noise in both urban and suburban living that many are afraid to be without it. In the same homily quoted above, Pope Benedict noted, “The youngest … seem to want to fill every empty moment with music and images, as for fear of feeling this very emptiness. This is a trend that has always existed, especially among the young and in the more developed urban contexts, but today it has reached a level such as to give rise to talk about anthropological mutation. Some people are no longer capable of remaining for long periods in silence and solitude.”
In other words, immersion in the virtual world of sound and images, from the earliest point in one’s life, tends to warp one’s human capacity for experiencing the deeper realities that can only be grasped through silent prayer and contemplation.
The needs we have for healthy silence can be addressed in several ways. First, we must find it at appropriate times in our churches. I highlighted this in my most recent pastoral letter on the Sacred Liturgy and Norms for our diocese. By its very nature, the liturgy has designated times for silence in order that we may reflect with wonder and awe on the mysteries of God and his love for us. Our churches must be sanctuaries of prayer, refuges where we can escape from the noise for moments with God so that we may have a “heart-to-heart” talk.
We can also seek escapes into the “wilderness,” as Jesus often did, to pray. That wilderness can be a fishing trip, a hike, or raking leaves in the backyard. It takes effort and often creativity, but in southern Missouri we are blessed there are still some places where one can get away from noise for a while. It is my hope that Trinity Hills, the diocese’s new 114-acre property for service, formation, and evangelization, east of Springfield, will serve as one of those places for many in the diocese.
Finally, we are blessed to have within the diocese a community of men in Ava, the Cistercian monks of Assumption Abbey, whose vocation is to seek God in silence and love. They, along with the nearby hermit community of Nazareth, live a dedicated life of prayer and contemplation, lifting up our needs, and those of the world, to God. They are, in the words of Pope Benedict, “in the heart of the Church,” and are crucial to her life and health. The monks have a guesthouse and often host those who wish to get away for some days of silence and prayer.
Whatever our vocation in the Church might be, each of us needs the sound of silence for both our spiritual and human health.