Wednesday 29 February 2012

The Sounds of Silence

By John O'Brien, S.J.

No, this article has nothing to do with Simon and Garfunkel. But I can’t help recalling that memorable line from Alanis Morissette’s rather edgy 1995 song “What I Really Want.” The singer asks tauntingly: Why are you so petrified of silence. Here can you handle this?” – and follows with a strange few seconds of complete … nothing. When she picks up again she sings, Did you think about your bills, your ex, your deadlines/Or when you think you’re gonna die/Or did you long for the next distraction?”

Ah yes, silence. The state we all long for but sometimes dread. The snatches or expanses of desert, where we can hear our hearts thump and our minds tick. Where we suddenly face the mystery of our own “being”, our contingency and mortality, and begin to ask the important questions we normally avoid in our regular, busy and noisy life.

Lent is, of course, a forty-day desert. But like the place where Christ went to pray and be tested, it is meant to be a place of growth. The only death in this desert is the death of selfish and sinful habits
which we can identify properly only if we have had sufficient space for reflection. There is no religion or spiritual path on this earth that does not involve some stage of purgation, and Lent is one of ours. But what of silence?

Silence on its own is not helpful at all: it’s negative space, the absence of goodness and being. But when one enters silence with a heart that seeks love, then silence becomes rich, purifying, and ultimately the setting for deep communication. Yes, silence is linked to our capacity for
 As lovers and close friends know, silence is the ground of true connection between persons. Pope Benedict’s remarkable message for this year’s World Communication Day underlines this point. Silence and "word" must be kept in balance, he holds, in order for authentic dialogue and closeness to take place: When word and silence become mutually exclusive, communication breaks down, either because it gives rise to confusion or because, on the contrary, it creates an atmosphere of coldness; when they complement one another, however, communication acquires value and meaning.

In a world that is addicted to noise, and longs for the next distraction, we need silence more than ever.

Catherine Doherty writes in her book Molchanie (the Russian word for “silence”), that the first step in entering a silence that is pregnant with God, is to reflect on the words of someone we love -- like the scriptures. “There is a mystery about silence,” she writes. “Slowly we begin to set words aside and create within ourselves a quiet heart. We learn to ‘fold the wings of our intellect,’ to disengage our thoughts and listen with our heart.” This is contemplative silence, which is not “empty”, but receptive.

How might I begin to enter God’s silence more deeply this Lent? There are potential deserts all around us. I might close the door to my room and pray to my heavenly father in secret. I might forgo the iPod when I make my daily commute, or sign off from Facebook and Twitter, which is becoming an increasingly popular Lenten practice. When I go to Mass and receive Holy Communion, and am letting Him enter me and become part of me, this communication occurs silently. I might rest then in that silence between persons – Creator and creature. Later, when I re-enter the world of torrential words, I will be strengthened to retain my interior calm.

With the Lenten graces of silence I will be better able to love. People are hungry for friendship and understanding today; I will notice that people have great need a listening presence. This Lent, we might resolve to truly listen to people. In this way, we will be letting the silence speak. It will be His silence, and thus it will betoken His presence.

But first, let us go into the desert.

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