Take Some Time to Build More Silence into Your Day
We live in a very loud culture, and the language of God isn’t the same as the language of the world. There’s no more illustrative image of this in Scripture than in Elijah’s encounter with God in 1 Kings 19:11-13. Elijah waited in a cave for God to pass by. A great wind broke pieces off the mountain; an earthquake hit; a fire roared past. Yet the Lord was not in any of those things: He came in a “still small voice.”
In the language of the world, a mighty show of power seems more fitting for our omnipotent God. We humans are a notoriously stiff-necked people; what would catch our attention more than an earthquake-wind-fire combination? We want the pyrotechnics from God, but He rarely speaks so bombastically to us. In the deepest parts of our souls, God placed a longing for Himself. And it takes a lot of effort to see past our appetites, desires, needs, and thoughts; they stand in between us and that deep place. The antidote? Silence is an essential tool to attune our souls to God. It is so important that the Catholic Encyclopedia begins its article on silence with a stark reality check: “All writers on the spiritual life uniformly recommend, nay, command under penalty of total failure, the practice of silence.”
Recently, Cardinal Sarah published an excellent book on this topic, The Power of Silence. Of all the ways that we can reach out to God, Cardinal Sarah says, “silence is above all the positive attitude of someone who prepares to welcome God by listening” (pg. 143). Listening is a form of self-gift, where we give not only the attention of our ears but of our hearts to another (pg. 81). “Silence precedes and prepares for the privileged moment when we have access to God, who can then speak to us face to face and as a friend” (pg. 143). That sounds great, but I think a lot of lay Catholics lead busy lives where quiet prayer is difficult. Does silence sound impossible? We need to be reminded sometimes that God needs a lot of our attention. Not for His sake, but for ours! If your relationship with God feels like it's at a low point, we need to examine ourselves: would an intimate friend or a spouse be satisfied with the amount of effort you put into communicating with them?
Goal of Silence: Prayer
When we speak of maintaining silence throughout the day, what we're really talking about is what St. Paul famously told the Thessalonians: to "pray constantly" (1 Thes 5:17). Praying with silence is contemplative prayer, even if it is not prolonged. St. Theresa of Avila described it as "a close sharing between friends" (quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church #2709). This type of prayer seeks the Father and the Son, through the Holy Spirit. "Words in this kind of prayer are not speeches; they are like kindling that feeds the fire of love. In this silence unbearable to the 'outer' man, the Father speaks to us in his incarnate Word, who suffered, died, and rose; in this silence the Spirit of adoption enables us to share in the prayer of Jesus" (CCC #2717). Taking small moments of silence during the day will likely not catapult us into the stratosphere of deep union with God, but will make small steps in that direction.
Here are some suggestions toward building up silence and taking those small steps.
Practical Suggestions for Silence
1) Don’t feel like you have to get all Carthusian the minute after sitting down in silence. Use images, prayers, songs, or anything helpful to get into the right peace of mind, but then turn them off once your mind gains focus on God.
2) Exercise your faith and cast your nets into the deep (Luke 5:4). Make an act of the will to believe that God is there, waiting to meet you. St. Josemaría Escrivá reminds us of the importance of seeing with the eyes of faith: “though we do not perceive him with our senses, his existence is far more true than any of the realities which we touch and see. God is here with us, really present, living. He sees and hears us, he guides us, and knows our smallest deeds, our most hidden intentions” (Furrow #658).
3) Have a notepad with you to write down distractions. Distractions always come when I start to pray silently—a song keeps going on in my head, I think of tasks for work the next day, what groceries we need, or who I should draft in fantasy baseball this season. Anything and everything! Having a small notepad can help with these mental notes: when they come up, get them down on paper so that they can get off your mind. I’d discourage using a smartphone for notes if you’re even a little bit distractible.
4) The amount of available time for silent prayer varies depending on one’s state in life. Note the silent times you actually have—driving in the car, in the morning before the rest of the family wakes up, etc.—and then take advantage of them. Schedule it on a calendar, if necessary. Don't fill these times with music (even if it's good music) or a TV show (even if it's religious programming). We have obligations at work and at home, and quiet times are at a premium. And time is something we can never get back!
5) Silence has the quality of an interior disposition—not merely the absence of sound. That disposition is something particular, Cardinal Sarah noted: “it is the love of the one Word” (pg. 80). Seek the Lord, pursue Him out of love, in love, and with love.
6) Ascetic practices of fasting help us attain silence better, including “fasting” from speech. Restrain especially from things we shouldn’t be saying anyway, like gossip and excessive complaining. In training our tongue, we’re also training our thoughts and urges at the same time. With practice, we can learn to not speak even if that juicy piece of gossip is right on the tip of our tongue. Silence of tongue helps us quiet our minds during times of silence.
7) Draw away from the world of entertainment, which is a world of noise. Give up time in front of the TV, on social media, playing video games, or anything that adds to the din of our lives. It’s often fun noise, and there is plenty of good entertainment available. Making time for silence is especially difficult for us, as noise is a comfortable distraction. But don’t forget that many quarters of the secular culture have become unabashedly un-Christian. We can’t underestimate how well the noise in our culture serves as an obstacle to growth in the Catholic faith.
C.S. Lewis’ spiritual masterpiece, The Screwtape Letters, features fictional letters from a senior demon named Screwtape to one of his trainees. On silence, the demon says, “music and silence—how I detest them both! …no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise—Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile—Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires.” (The Screwtape Letters, letter 22, pg. 102-103).
If staying silent is elusive, try talking to a spiritual director or holy friend. Sometimes God allows us to struggle to get close to Him, and knows we will find the most growth in that struggle. Reach out to God in silent times and listen to what He has to say to us in silence.