By Julie McDermott
Author’s note: This is a three-part blog series taken from a retreat lecture given on the topic of silence one year ago. You may find the other parts here and here.The basis of this talk came from Cardinal Robert Sarah’s “The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise” (Ignatius Press, 2017), and his wisdom is strongly referenced below.
We have reached the point in this series of addressing how to enter into a time of contemplative silence and communion with God. This is difficult. As I said before, we live in a time when being a “Martha” is tempting and encouraged. We are trained by our culture to put “quiet time” on our to-do list or even to view “silence” as a waste of time: listen to a popular podcast or watch the news instead.
Let’s turn again to what Cardinal Sarah says:
“Contemplative silence is silence with God. This silence is clinging to God, appearing before God, and placing oneself in his presence, offering oneself to him, mortifying oneself in him, adoring, loving, and hearing him, listening to him and resting in him. This is the silence of eternity, the union of the soul with God” (pg. 77).
I think that Cardinal Sarah introduces two ideas here that help us to enter into contemplative silence: recollection and humility.
First, recollection is the act of gathering things together. When we gather ourselves -- our body, mind, and heart -- and come before the presence of God, we are practicing recollection and preparing ourselves to listen and rest in Him. We are picking up the pieces of ourselves that have been scattered and pulled apart by the noise and busyness of life.
Second, when Cardinal Sarah writes of contemplative silence, there is an undertone of humility. If we do not practice humility, we cannot master our own interior silence. He writes that, “If man does not mortify himself, if he stays as he is, he remains outside of God.” To become aware of the presence of God in our hearts, we must put aside our own cares and desires -- mortify ourselves -- in order to practice solitude with our Lord. We must humble ourselves.
St Peter exhorts:
“Likewise you that are younger be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you” (1 Peter 5:5-6).
Recollection and humility are disciplines and, naturally, they need to be practiced and worked on. The fruit of these disciplines is a desire to encounter God. Silence is difficult and nothing urges you to seek it diligently.
But take heart! The disciplines of recollection and humility allow us to enter into contemplative silence and communion with God, and these virtues teach us to guard our hearts, keep our bodies, and be mindful of our words. What beautiful growth, what beautiful fruits! Plus, as we deepen our relationship with God, and with ourselves, there are additional fruits: think of how living in this condition will help us to move outward and bless others!
As we ponder silence, we are not only thinking of “How can I become more virtuous through silence?” but, “How am I drawing closer to God, self, and others through the presence of silence in my life?” Therefore, we are becoming Mary, an example of interior silence and peace, before Martha, a person of charity and stewardship.
I will conclude with four reminders of how to fill ourselves with a renewed interior silence.
The Holy Spirit. Christ did not leave mankind orphaned. As at the beginning of creation, like a gentle breeze, “the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2) so the Son of God entrusted humanity into the hands of the Holy Spirit who spreads the love of the Father and silently distributes His light and wisdom. It is necessary to hide in the Spirit in order to escape the world and divert our senses. The Holy Spirit is the first ingredient to silence! Let us remember that we are not alone. We can cry out for His help.
St. Paul writes,
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26).
Prayer. The Spirit intercedes for us, and we can ask Him to guide our prayers. Remember that Mary and Martha are a spiritual pedagogy -- we work to become Mary, an example of interior silence and peace, in order to be Martha well, a person of charity and service. To explore this spiritual pedagogy, practice finding God dwelling in your heart throughout the day (today and every day) by praying.
Traditionally, people have said the Jesus Prayer throughout the day -- on the hour or even more often. You may find help with physical reminders: saying the Rosary and keeping the Rosary, or other prayer beads, in your pocket and feeling a crucifix around your neck can remind you to be in prayer. Novenas are a prayer with specific intentions that are said multiple times a day for usually nine days. Novenas are wonderful when used in preparation for something, such as Christmas, or for a person who is suffering or experiencing a life change.
Scripture often goes hand-in-hand with prayer. Through Scripture Christ taught us to pray, and it can be used for meditation and prayer. When we listen to Scripture and meditate on it, man grows in wisdom, grace, and stature.
Cardinal Sarah writes:
The world can pursue man anywhere he may go to hide, even in the solitude and silence of a cloister. Pride, the passions, and hypocrisy seek to reassert their worst rights over the soul. When that happens, nestling in silence against the heart of God, with the open Bible over our head like the wings of the Holy Spirit, is still the best antidote, -- the one thing that is necessary to chase away from our interior territory all that is useless, superfluous, and even our own self (127).
Eucharist. A fourth reminder is to receive Communion. At the Mass, we hear the Eucharistic Canon and the priest pronounce the words of consecration, yet the mystery of the Body and Blood of Christ moves in silence. It comes about imperceptibly, like all the greatest works of God.
In the Gospel of St. John, Christ instructs us on this point and says,
“He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me” (John 6:54-57).
We must be contemplative and attentive to retain silence in our lives -- to work against the busyness of the world this Lent and throughout the year. Silence is resting in your heart, waiting for you to attend to it.
In conclusion, let us meditate on the words of Pope Benedict XVI:
"We live in a society in which it seems that every space, every moment must be 'filled' with projects, activities and noise; there is often no time even to listen or converse. Dear brothers and sisters, let us not fear to create silence, within and outside ourselves, if we wish to be able not only to become aware of God's voice but also to make out the voice of the person beside us, the voices of others" (Homily, July 4, 2010).
Julie McDermott lives in Charlottesville, VA and attends All Saints Anglican Church.