When I was a student of philosophy, we had a holy and wise Master of Students, Fr. Luis López de las Heras. He gave us a lecture every Saturday morning. One lecture that lingered in my mind for life was his talk on silence, a silence he practiced in his humble Dominican life. Later on, I was moved by one of my favorite songs, “The Sound of Silence” of Simon and Garfunkel: the singers, the song, and the lyrics! It is enchanting. I love its title.
As human beings, as Christians in particular, we need to hear and listen to the sounds of silence through our life. We are invaded, bombarded today by too many words, too many noises… I invite you to listen with me to the serene sound of silence.
SILENCE, THE OTHER POWERFUL WORD
Silence is the other word. After the word, Lacordaire says, silence is the second power in the world. Word and silence are two ways of speaking; two aspects of communication; the two sides of talking. Both words complement each other. In dialogue, we communicate with each other, through mutual speaking and mutual listening.
Silence is a great value and virtue in all religions and faiths: “Renunciation, detachment, humility, simplicity and silence are considered great values by the followers of all religions” (John Paul II, Ecclesia in Asia, 23). The Church, in particular, “must discover the power of silence” (Cardinal Luis Antonio de Tagle).
We need silence to hear the wordless voice of our heart: “Your hearts know in silence the secrets of the days and the nights” (Khalil Gibran).
We need silence to listen to others. Job tells his talking friends: “If you would only keep silent that would be your wisdom” (Jb 13:5). Pope Francis speaks of the importance of learning the art of listening, “which is more than simply hearing” and implies “an openness of heart”; he recommends “respectful and compassionate listening” (Evangelii Gaudium 171). Unfortunately, many of us do not listen to others but just wait for them to finish their talking and continue with ours: “People talking without speaking; people hearing without listening…” We keep silent when our word will be hurtful to the other, or boastful or unkind. Then, as my father used to say, “La mejor palabra es la que está por decir” (the best word is the one not yet spoken).
We need silence to listen to the utterly Other – to God. “Speak, Lord, your servant listens.” We need silence, to empty our hearts of selfishness and be able to listen to God: “I hold myself in quiet and silence, like a little child in his mother’s arms, like a little child, so I keep myself” (Ps 131:2). Silence is needed “to listen to the Voice: “I will keep silent and let God speak within” (Meister Eckhart).
We need silence to speak the saving word. In his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini (2010), Pope Benedict XVI recommends that the People of God be educated on the value of silence. This is needed to speak of and listen to the word. The word, in fact, “can only be spoken and heard in silence, outward and inward”; “the great patristic tradition teaches us that the mysteries of Christ all involve silence” (VD 66). The liturgy speaks of “sacred silence,” which is recommended through the Eucharist, in particular after the homily and after communion. Pauses of silence are also recommended in the recitation of the Psalms: “The purpose of this silence is to allow the voice of the Holy Spirit to be heard more fully in our hearts and to unite our personal prayer” (General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours, no. 202). Pauses of silence are also recommended when praying the Rosary, particularly at the beginning of each mystery: “Just as moments of silence are recommended in the liturgy, so too in the recitation of the Rosary it is fitting to pause briefly after listening to the word of God, while the mind focuses on the content of a particular mystery” (John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, October 16, 2002, no. 31).
We are speaking of good silence. There is also bad silence; the silence that does not utters words when it should speak: “We believe, and so we speak” (II Cor 4:13). The Lord says to Paul: “Do not be afraid, go on speaking and do not be silenced, for I am with you” (Acts 18:9-10). Like God’s prophet: “About Zion I will not keep silent, about Jerusalem I shall not rest until saving justice dawns for her like a bright light and her salvation like a blazing torch” (Is 62:1).
The preacher (in a true sense, every Christian is a preacher of the Word) the preacher must speak the truth when he should. The apostles Peter and John were asked by the Jewish authorities to keep quiet about the Crucified and Risen Lord. Their answer: We have to obey God, rather than men (cf. Acts 4:19). St. Gregory the Great states: “If a religious leader is afraid to say what is right, what else can his silence mean but that he has taken flight? Negligent religious leaders are often afraid to speak freely and say what needs to be said – for fear of losing favor with people” (The Pastoral Rule).
The Christian is asked by his humanity and faith to speak on behalf of those who have no voice: the children, women, the poor, the migrants, and the marginalized. Leo XIII says that at times you have to speak, as when he spoke powerfully of the poverty of workers at the end of the 19th century: “By keeping silence we would seem to neglect the duty incumbent on us” (cf. Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, no. 107; John Paul II, Centesimus Annus 53).
Forced silence is also bad silence, such as the silence imposed by dictators and the like on others, on the promoters of human dignity and rights, on the peaceful followers of religions and faiths, on slaves, on the defenseless, on refugees, etc.
Money too may force some of us to keep silent when we ought not: “When money talks, the truth is silent” (Chinese Proverb). Nowadays, moreover, it is not hard to find people who do not talk because speaking is not “politically correct.”
Good silence is quiet prayer: “Remain calm so that you will be able to pray” (I Pet 4:7). It is contemplative silence: “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room” (Pascal). Serene silence is the silence of creation: “God does not speak, but everything speaks of God” (Julien Green).
Honest silence is the one of Joseph who, feeling the hand of God, accepts silently the motherhood of Mary and the mysterious life of Jesus (cf. Mt 1:24); he does not say a word; he just talks by the good deeds of his daily life attuned to God’s will.
Virtuous silence is the silence of Mary, who kept all the things happening around Jesus in her heart (Lk 2:51): in her, “all was space for the Beloved and silence to listen” (Bruno Forte). With the dead body of the Lord on her lap, Mary says in the lovely words of St. Maximus the Confessor: “Wordless is the Word of the Father, who made every creature which speaks; lifeless are the eyes of the one of whose word and whose nod all living things move” (See Benedict XVI, On the Silence of Jesus, General Audience march 7, 2012).
Jesus invites us to pray with few words and much silence: “In praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Mt 6:7-8). Earlier, the Psalmist had condemned empty or hollow talk (cf. Ps 41:6).
Holy silence is the silence of Jesus through his public life, a silence that underlined his words, a silence the saints learned from him. We are taught by the saints to cultivate silence in our life, to appreciate the silent love of the mystics, the pregnant silence of St. Thomas Aquinas after his mystical experience on December 6, 1273; after this, no more words, no more writings – total silence after an intimate encounter with the Word! Indeed, as St. Augustine tells us, “When the Word of God increases the words of men fall.” St. Teresa of Avila puts silence in her definition of prayer: prayer is a dialogue of friendship being alone (silently) many times with the One we know that loves us (Life, VIII, 5). St. John of the Cross speaks of the silent contemplation of his Beloved without the noise of voices: The tranquil night, / silent music, / sounding solitude, / the supper that refreshes and deepens love (CB 14-15). The great mystic advises silence when facing the lives of the other: “Great wisdom is to keep silent and not to look to sayings, deeds or the lives of others” (Sayings of Light and Love, 108).
Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta asked her sisters to practice first the virtue of kindness and second the virtue of silence, a silence she witnessed also by smiling – to conceal her great inner sufferings: “In the silence of the heart God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself. Souls of prayer are souls of great silence” (Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, The Heart of the World) I remember my Japanese brother Dominican Fr. Oshida, a peaceful soul who lived a simple life in an ecumenical community he founded near Tokyo. The main focus of his life, influenced by Zen Buddhism, was prayer, but not any kind of prayer but deepening silence: “Through deepening silence we aim to get rid of the noises of the little ego, of selfish tendencies: without going out of this little ego – of the egoistic attitude – silence cannot be real” (Fr. Oshida, September 1980).
THE SILENT SOUND OF LOVE
Word and silence, then, are two ways of speaking, the two eyes of the face of life, the two wings of a bird. Word and silence, however, are not enough to be totally healed, redeemed and saved. Word and silence need a third element, that is, action, good deeds of love. Jesus began his public life doing and teaching, and through the three-year period of his public life, He gave priority importance to action – to prayer and to compassionate deeds. Remember the healing of the blind man on his way to Jericho. Jesus – like the Rabies of his time – was teaching his disciples on the way as they walked along. When he heard the cry of the blind man, he stopped talking and asked the disciples to bring the blind man to him. He stopped talking with his disciples and instead cures the blind man: “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you” (Lk 18:42).
More important than speaking by words is talking by silently witnessing the truth in love. Practicing silently goodness, virtues, love is the most convincing word. St. Ignatius of Antioch writes to the Ephesians: “It is better to remain silent and to be than to talk and not be.” St. Thomas Aquinas writes that good example move more than words (cf. STh, I-II, 34, 1). And it is still better – as the martyred saint proved in his own life – to be a practicing Christian and to talk, for then the word is part of witnessing the truth in love. Every Christian is asked by his faith in Jesus to proclaim him in deeds and words. When oral proclamation is not possible or prudent, then he or she must give “a silent witnessing of Christ” (John Paul II, Ecclesia in Asia 23); “A Christian knows when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and to let love alone speak” (Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est 31).
Man’s vocation is to love. “The greatest need we have to be able to profit is to keep quiet before this great God…, for the language He hears best is silent love” (St. John of the Cross, Sayings of Light and Love. 131). True love, Antoine Saint-Exupery tells us, is prayer; and prayer is silence, the holy silence of the contemplative, of the active-contemplative, of the humble and prayerful Christian, of the sinner; the good silence of those who follow Christ Jesus, who is the prayerful, contemplative and compassionate Man-for-Others, Son of God and Mary, and a Man-for-others.
Yes, therefore, to a good deed, a kind word and a virtuous silence. Yes, to these three expressions of love.
THE SILENCE OF THE CRUCIFIED LORD
On Good Friday, Jesus is silent: his serene silence to the many questions of Pilate and Herod; his calm silence to the cry of the people: “Crucify him! Crucify him!” His humble silence while he is horribly scourged at the pillar. Jesus is patiently silent through his whole passion; at times, he pronounces a few words which dramatize his talking silence. Jesus, the Suffering Servant of Yahweh “never opened his mouth, like a lamb led to the slaughter-house, like a sheep dumb before the shearers, he never opened his mouth” (Is 53:7; cf. Acts 8:32). Yes, “like a silent lamb, but in reality instead of a lamb we have a man, and in the man, Christ that contains everything” (Meliton de Sardis).
On the Cross, Jesus faced also the silence of God. From the Cross, Jesus asked his Father: “Why have you abandoned me?” God’s answer was: silence. The silence of God, the mysterious silence of God yesterday and today in the midst of darkness, of desolation, of deadly natural calamities, of war… Why this silence, God? Where are You when we hurt terribly? Why do You allow so much evil in the world? Benedict XVI asked in his visit to the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenaw: “Why the Holocaust? Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?” (May 28, 2006). I ask you, my dear God: Why did you allow the terrible crucifixion of your Son – of your Son? St. Dominic’s favorite book is the book of charity, that is, God’s love revealed in the cross – in the silent cross. Where is our compassionate God, our Father when suffering and darkness visit us or our loved ones? “God does not want suffering; He is present in a silent way” (E. Schillebeeckx).
Dear God, “May we not forget that you also talk when you keep silent… In your silence as well as in your word, you are always the same Father, the same paternal and maternal heart, and you guide us with your love and elevate us with your silence” (S. Kierkegaard). St. John of the Cross says in his Ascent to Mount Carmel (2 A, 22, 5) that God is silent because in his Son Jesus He gave us everything (cf. Heb 1:1-2) and in the Word He has said everything (todo): “In giving us his Son, his only Word, God spoke everything to us at once in this sole Word – and He has no more to say.”
There is a story from Norway. It is a bit long but lovely! There was a popular chapel in a small town, presided by a large crucifix. A humble old man took care of the chapel. Every day hundreds of people came to visit the Crucified Lord to ask his help, at times to pray for a miracle. One day Haakon, the old man’s name, asked Christ a favor: “I want to suffer for you. Allow me to take your place on the cross.” The Crucified Jesus opened his mouth and said: “I allow you, but with one condition.” What is the condition, my Lord? “Whatever happens, or whatever you see or hear, do not respond; keep silent always.” Haakon answered: “Yes, Lord, I promise to keep silent always.” So the Lord and Haakon exchanged places, and nobody noticed the difference! For a long time, the good old man was able to fulfill the condition on silence. One day, however, something happened! A rich man approached the Crucifix, prayed before the Lord, put some money in the box and left – he also left there unknowingly his wallet. A little later, a poor man visited and knelt before the Lord. Noticing the wallet there, he got it – and left giving thanks to the Crucified Lord and very joyful! Haakon kept silent. Then a young man approached and prayed before the Crucifix to ask the Lord for a good voyage. While the young man was praying, the rich man came back looking for his wallet; he accused the young man of stealing it. The young man denied it: “I do not have it.” “Give me back my wallet, thief,” the rich man retorted. “I did not take your wallet, please stop hitting me.” Then a strong voice came from the Cross: “Please, stop hitting the young man; he did not take your wallet.” The young man and the rich man left the chapel very humbled and amazed. That night the Lord asked the old man to please come down from the cross: “You did not keep quiet.” Haakon: “How could I, my Lord? That was a great injustice.” The Lord said: ‘You did not know that it was good for the rich man to leave his wallet, for he was going to use the money to buy the virginity of a young woman. The poor man needed the money to buy some food, so it was good for him to find the wallet. Regarding the young man, who would had been wounded seriously to the point of not been able to take the voyage, a few minutes ago his boat collapsed and he drowned. You do not know… I know, and that is why I keep silent.”
“Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness” (from an Ancient Homily), the strange silence of Good Friday and Holy Saturday. It is the silence of the naked Cross, of the hopeful Cross of Christ! Our silence before the Cross of Christ is indeed the hopeful silence that is directed to Easter: from the loud silence of Jesus’ death to the sounding joy of his resurrection.
With St. Bernard we pray to the Lord:
There is in your adorable Passion, Lord a word that moves me and speaks like no other word. It is the word you have not uttered, the word of your silence. When, Lord, when will I learn your silence, and when will I know that You, only You justify and condemn? When, my Jesus, will I learn to keep quiet, to talk little with men and much with You? When shall I imitate your silence – humble, patient, adorable silence? Oh silent Jesus, give me the holy virtue of your silence!
Fausto Gomez, OP
St. Dominic’s Priory, Macau