[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times July 31, 2008]
Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace. As a child has rest in its mother’s arms, even so my soul. Ps. 131
“My big sister, quiet for three days? LOL!” reads the text message from my brother, John. “Eight,” I sent back cheekily. I’m stuck in traffic on my way to retreat, where I’ll spend eight days in silence. The highway reopens, and John gets the last word: “No way.”
John is not the first person to wonder about my penchant for silence. When my kids were young they used to tell everyone who asked while I was away not only where I was but what I wasn’t doing — talking.
I’d come home to comments that ranged from the incredulous “you mean like a monk?” to sighs of “sounds like heaven” — the latter from other parents. Most were riffs from my brother teasing — “isn’t it hard?”
As the psalmist says, I set my soul in silence and peace — and in a world where sound tracks and packed calendars abound, it can be hard to choose stillness. For just those reasons, the exercise has much to recommend it.
Silence and the sacred have long been entwined. The prophet Elijah found God, not in the earthquake, not in the wind, but in the stillness. Early Christians took to caves and pillars to escape the noise of the world. When we cease to speak, we can hear.
Even Jesus sought the silence of the desert when the clamor of the crowds grew to a roar. We can rest in silence, it renews. With teens in my house, silence is as rare as angelic visitations. The chance to listen for God and to refresh body and soul in His peace is similarly heavenly, but these are not the only graces to be found in silence.
In his rule for monastic living, St. Benedict devotes a chapter to silence and points out that the purpose of silence in a communal life is to both listen and learn.
Silence teaches us to move with deliberate care, to discern how our choices in life might deprive others of what they need. When the small everyday noises are amplified — the clang of silverware against a plate, or the wind slamming shut a door left ajar — I am gradually made aware of how my life in the world might deprive and disturb others. Do I need to rush to beat someone else into line at the grocery store?
Silence invites us to learn humility and trust. When we choose to refrain from speaking, becoming unable to express our needs to others, we learn to accept what is offered, to trust that what we need will be provided.
On a silent retreat one autumn, I had taken a long walk and returned ravenous. Hoping for a reprise of the previous night’s chocolate cake, instead I found figs roasted with honey on the dessert table. I didn’t like figs and breakfast was a long way off. Go hungry? Break the silence and beg the kitchen staff for cake? Or trust that what I needed was there for me? I trusted, and learned of the marvelous taste of honeyed figs and God’s care for me.
The enveloping silence of my eight days is a memory, but I can still hear it reverberating through my life, inviting me to move with more thought for others, and less for myself, to make manifest what I learned in silence. What we hear in whispers, says St. Matthew’s Gospel, proclaim from the housetops.
As we pray before you, Lord, we ask you, in your mercy, for the grace always to ponder in our hearts what we proclaim with our lips. Amen.