Silence is also speech

Soon silence will have passed into legend.  Man has turned his back on silence.  Day after day he invents machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation… tooting, howling, screeching, booming, crashing, whistling, grinding, and trilling bolster his ego.  His anxiety subsides.  His inhuman void spreads monstrously like a gray vegetation.  ~Jean Arp

Recently Mary Anne Moresco wrote a very good article for Catholic Exchange Drawing Near to God in Silence. The subject of silence is one that I have been prone to giving a lot of thought as I grow older. Having spent my teen years forward immersed in my walkman’s headphones, MTV, HBO, or ESPN, I find myself at 40 looking back at my pre-noise years. To those of my early childhood in South Dakota, where we had three television channels, AM radio, and books. Ok, so they were mostly comic books, but you get the idea.

And now as a praying man I find that I relish in those quiet times. Times of solitude in study, prayer or thought, in which the television and the radio are off. To further add to my reader’s growing suspicion that I am a knuckle-dragging ludite of the highest order let me also confess that I do not yet own an iPod. I say yet because I do plan to get one in order to unburden my wall from the hundreds of space-consuming CDs that reside on a rack system. But I only want the iPod so I can reduce this 3.5′ x 5′ wall space into one that fits into the palm of my hand.

I do not begrudge my children for not allowing that silence as yet because I realize that all too soon they will be grown and gone. I still fight for at least one or more hours of solitude at the end of the day so I can reflect, pray or write, but if I miss out on it for the day it’s not that big a deal. A bigger annoyance to me are those who cannot seem to make themselves abide in silence during Sunday Mass. And I am not necessarily talking about during the Mass as we attend a large city parish with several young families, ourselves included, and the little ones aren’t the ones that distract me. That distinction is saved for the adult or adults who feel it necessary to

A) stand just outside the sanctuary doors in the entrance to our church and visit with neighbors and friends at a high decibel level thereby distracting those of us who came for Mass early to pray a rosary, etc. As Moresco writes in her article

Silence is commended by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) not just during Mass, but before Mass begins.  And this pre-Mass silence is commended not only within the church but in all areas adjacent to it (including the sacristy and vesting room).  [GIRM 45]  This is why we teach lay people to approach the Sacristy with reverence rather than bursting into the Sacristy with back-slapping tales of this or that adventure.  There is nothing wrong with telling back-slapping tales.  But the moments allocated for pre-Mass silence are not the time for this.  This time is holy and set apart for God alone.

The gift of Pre-Mass silence enables us to focus our minds and hearts on God and collect ourselves for the mystery we are about to receive.  It gives us the freedom we need to experience interior reflection.  This silence provides time to interiorly thank God, praise God, tell God we are sorry, and ask Him for what we need.  Without pre-Mass silence it becomes difficult to devoutly pray the Mass.  GIRM 45 tells us that sacred silence is observed before Mass that “all may dispose themselves to carry out the sacred action in a devout in fitting manner.”   

B) stand immediately after the closing procession and start chatting loudly with friends in the next pew or the next aisle while still in the nave of the church. Moresco also comments on this.

The GIRM also calls for silence after Communion.  After Communion the soul enters into a unique and intimate union with Christ.  Saint Ignatius of Antioch tells us that the Eucharist “provides the medicine of immortality, the antidote for death and the food that makes us live forever in Jesus Christ.” [Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church #294]  This intimate union immediately following Communion when Christ is especially present to us is a time to silently “pray” to and “praise” God in our hearts.  [GIRM 45]   This unique presence of Christ in the Eucharist does not last forever.  This presence only “continues in the Eucharist as long as the Eucharistic species subsist.”  [CCCC #285] 

Silence is necessary for contemplative prayer to happen after Communion.  As the Catechism tells us “Contemplative prayer is silence, the ‘symbol of the world to come’ or ‘silent love.’…  In this silence, unbearable to the ‘outer’ man, the Father speaks to us…” (CCC 2717)

First of all I must admit that I am guilty of having done both. It does still happen to me and I’m working on it constantly, which is why I do understand it when other parishioners do the same.

As explained in this article at Catholic Encyclopedia, silence may be viewed from a threefold standpoint:

  • As an aid to the practice of good, for we keep silence with man, in order the better to speak with God, because an unguarded tongue dissipates the soul, rendering the mind almost, if not quite, incapable of prayer. The mere abstaining from speech, without this purpose, would be that “idle silence” which St. Ambrose so strongly condemns.
  • As a preventative of evil. Senica, quoted by Thomas à Kempis complains that “As often as I have been amongst men, I have returned less a man” (Imitation, Book I, c. 20).
  • The practice of silence involves much self-denial and restraint, and is therefore a wholesome penance, and as such is needed by all.

Having considered which of the two senses I would choose if given the choice (and I hope I never have to make such a choice), I would rather lose my hearing than my eyesight. I may not have that choice as my hearing has deteriorated in one ear due to the excess noice I pumped into my ears during the teen/college years. But at least with my sight I could continue to read and to contemplate in silence the things that I’ve read. It goes deeper than that, but as I said I hope I never have to face such a choice.

A priest friend of mine recently recommended I make a monastic retreat. Would that I could take time away to do so. I do try to make weekend retreats closer to home. And someday I would very much like to spend a few days at the Clear Creek Monastery.

Please do not misunderstand. I love a good row and the noise and excitement of a crowd as anyone. But not 24/7. I find myself seeking a minimum amount of time each day in order to “recharge”. Would that more of us did so. It’s the best way I know of to unwind, to reconnect, and to “Be still and know that He is God.”

We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness.  God is the friend of silence.  See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence…. We need silence to be able to touch souls.  ~Mother Teresa

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