Monday 16 December 2013

The Silence of Advent

By John D. O’Brien, S.J.

Northern Nativity, William Kurelek

Only when you are familiar with silence have you learned to speak; what you have to say can ripen only in silence. – Adrienne von Speyr, Lumina/New Lumina 

Have you ever had that experience when you can’t get to sleep, even though your mind and body are thoroughly exhausted? It’s frustrating, but there’s nothing you can do about it. Last night I tossed and turned, and wondered why. I hadn’t had any caffeine. Nor had I been staring at luminescent screen, which often fools the brain into extending its waking hours. I had thought that I would fall headlong into deep slumber after a long trip, for I was in a warm cabin, surrounded by peace and silence. It was not to be.

Cabin “C” 

Trapper’s Lodge is ten minutes outside of Yellowknife. It’s minus forty outside and the wind is the only sound. It’s soothing, but only serves to accent the absence of noise. My brain is registering the novelty. My spirit is alert that something is different. It’s not that I live in a noisy part of Vancouver; in fact, our neighbourhood is rather tranquil, and my basement room a pretty quiet place. But there’s a buzz in the life I’m living. I’ve been “on-stage” for the past four months, that is, teaching daily, and in regular intensive conversation with colleagues and students alike. The drama of final papers and exams have just finished. I’m due for my twice-yearly retreat, to reconnect with the spirit in the deeper way. Perhaps all this conspired to keep the more external side of me from sinking into sweet depths.

The Next Day 

Although I did not sleep more than five hours, I feel restoration at work. I’m adapting to the soothing silence which surrounds all conversation here. Simply by being itself, silence is calling us to recreation. It is partly the privation of stimulus. There has only been five hours of rather dim daylight today. At Trapper’s Lake there is also no electronic noise. There’s a wonderful simplicity to the people I meet, a peace, and probably a wisdom. Why does this happen in places like this?

In the remarkable BBC reality show, The Big Silence, a group of typical, modern British people go from their every-day lives to a Benedictine Monastery and then to the Jesuit retreat house in Wales. The mini-series discretely follows their experiences, which are largely interior, but nonetheless end up being quite dramatic. The participants are of different levels of faith and walks of life, but are all affected by the one thing they did not anticipate would challenge them: the quiet. All the personal issues that are normally suppressed by speech, noise, calculation and distraction, rise to the surface. As Abbot Christopher Jamieson explains in one scene: “In the silence you find your soul, and it is through your soul that God finds you.”

Then God Speaks 

For ah! we know not what each other says, these things and I; in sound I speak – their sound is but their stir, they speak by silences. Nature, poor stepdame, cannot slake my drouth. – Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven 

Silence must be more than the mere absence of natural noise. For the Swiss philosopher Max Picard, silence has a richness, is a “world” unto itself. In his 1953 book The World of Silence he wrote, “silence has greatness simply because it is. It is, and that is its greatness, its pure existence. There is no beginning to silence and no end: it seems to have its origins in the time when everything was still pure Being. It is like uncreated, everlasting Being.” Perhaps with this insight, we might see how silence connects us with God. It is something primordial, like the place from which we came, the place where God is.

In the end, silence must be more than nature’s therapeutic spa. At some point, in the stillness, the quiet, small voice will speak and heal us.

 The Donkey Carrying God, William Kurelek

Which bring us to Advent, the season of great silences. The Christ-event occurred in the fullness of time, when the silence was just right:
For while gentle silence enveloped all things,
 and night in its swift course was now half gone, your all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne… (Wisdom 18:14-15) 
This is the time when we contemplate the young couple travelling the road to Bethlehem. Then, too, there was cold and wind and possibly restless nights. But the Incarnate Word was alive in the mother’s womb, animating them, urging them on.

While silence can sometimes keep us from sleeping, it is but a prelude to a deeper birth. For now, I will drink deeply from this silence. Even Jesus, during his years of ministry, returns to his "Advent, when he withdraws to silent places, to wilderness and mountaintop, and reconnects with the Father. So too must we who live active lives. And somehow we must learn to live silently, to allow silence to permeate all our actions, and let the Advent spirit linger on into our Christmas joy.


  1. All so true, John. This is my favourite time of year, I think for exactly what you've painted in this piece - there is a silence, a quiet, a waiting, receptivity in Advent that is so healing and beautiful. Makes it even harder to brave the clamor of the shopping mall!

  2. that was nice, John. Catholic speaker/author Matthew Kelly calls it "the classroom of silence." I like that phrase. I must confess I'm BRUTAL at silence - makes me "wiggy" - but I am feeling that I need it more and more these days.....I'm just too afraid to make time for it! Only God knows what will happen when I do! :-)