By Julie McDermott
Before we go any further, I want to tease out what I mean by the word “silence.” Silence is not an absence -- it is not simply to be mute. Silence is not a means of self-absorption. For example, true silence is not our time to quietly think of ourselves and make to-do lists.
No, silence is a condition of being present to God, neighbor, and oneself.
This condition is a presence, a state of being. We experience it when we are silent before the altar, before the presence of Christ silently dwelling. Perhaps a good example would be when you pause to kneel and pray before Mass or after receiving Holy Eucharist. When we kneel in the Nave, before the altar, we open ourselves up to the grace of God, and he draws us to Himself in silence. We don’t hear his voice, he doesn’t grab us by the arm, and we are in His presence.
Cardinal Sarah writes: “In the depths of his soul, man wants the presence and company of God, in the same way that Christ sought his Father in the desert, far from the cries and passions of the crowd. If we really desire him, and if we are in his Presence, words are no longer necessary. This silent intimacy with God is the only speech, dialogue, and communion” (201).
An extension to this image, a physical image we see in the sanctuary, is the Sanctus Lamp. It remains lit, a silent flame, to remind us of the presence of the Body of Christ in the tabernacle.
Similarly to the Lamp, we can also picture the silent cloud that the incense makes, floating in the sanctuary, rising above our heads. It is a reminder of the Holy Spirit being among us and working silently; also, it reminds us of our prayers silently floating to heaven.
Silence is the manifestation of a presence -- the fullest, most intense of all presences, and God is waiting for us there. God’s Being has always been present in us in absolute silence, just like the blood that flows through our veins is silent. When we are silent, we enter into a relationship with the Word that is dwelling in the bottom of our hearts.
In his letter, St. Paul writes that he prays the Ephesians will understand that Christ dwells in our hearts -- and we know that St. Paul continues to pray for us:
For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God (Ephesians 3:14-19, emphasis added).
The 1928 BCP also draws on the language of Christ dwelling in our hearts. During the sacrament of Holy Baptism we pray that “Christ may dwell in the hearts of the baptized through faith”. Mysteriously, silently, the baptized receive a sacramental grace that rests in the bottom of their hearts.
In Romans, St. Paul writes:
That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved (10:9, emphasis added).
By believing in your heart that God is raised from the dead, you will be saved. Our heart, of course, is very important, and it is where God dwells: where our knowledge and belief of his salvific promise rests. In the Gospel of St. John, Our Lord says,
If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him (Jn 14:23).
Our own silence allows us to enter into a relationship with the Word that is at the bottom of our heart. It is resting there, waiting for us to enter into it -- God has made his home in us.
When we retreat, when we fast, when we enter into the desert, we are silent, and we enter into a silence that is God.
Julie McDermott lives in Charlottesville, VA and attends All Saints Anglican Church.