“When all things were in deepest silence and night was in the midst of her swift course, your almighty word, O Lord, leapt down from your royal throne….” (Wisdom 18: 14-15)
In this note I will discuss very briefly the spiritual value of silence, acknowledging that it would be hard to overemphasize the value and importance placed on silence by the great spiritual writers. My main conclusion will be that the deep awareness of God’s own magnificent presence in our souls is nurtured by silence.
If we meditate for a moment on the silence that existed between Jesus and Mary during the time she carried Him in her womb, and what transpired between her and Jesus during those nine months, our hearts are filled with awe and wonder, and we see anew that silence is not an emptiness but a condition for greater fullness, for greater life, for greater love.
There can be no doubt that exterior silence greatly aids in promoting an interior awareness of God’s presence. It says in the Gospel of Luke, for example, that Jesus “withdrew himself into the wilderness, and prayed” (Luke 5:16). And Saint John of the Cross – a great master of interior prayer – loved to pray in the mountains. But it is not always possible to be in the wilderness or in the mountains, and we are advised that “when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” ( Matt. 6:6).
Saint Faustina says that “in order to hear the voice of God, one has to have silence in one’s soul and to keep silence; not a gloomy silence, but an interior silence; that is to say, recollection in God. One can speak a great deal without breaking silence and, on the contrary, one can speak little and be constantly breaking silence” (118). “In silence I tell you everything, Lord, because the language of love is without words” (1489).
Dr. Susan Muto, a contemporary Catholic writer who has written extensively on the spiritual life, discusses how essential growth in inner silence is. She says: “Silence is not only an essential component of the spiritual life we must preserve if we want to welcome God’s word; it is that which preserves us. What is silence? To be silent is not merely to be mute. Spiritual silence is an emptying of self to make room for God. Ultimately it is only silence that can open us to a deeper experience of God….Each time we retreat to a corner of silence in our project-oriented world, we put ourselves in a state of peaceful readiness. We become docile” (Am I Living A Spiritual Life?, pp. 29-30).
Muto adds in another book, “In silence the scattered pieces of my life fall into place, and I see again where I am going. Silence puts me in touch not only with the human spirit in all its richness, but also with the Holy Spirit. It opens me to the dimension of transcendence….Silence becomes a sanctuary in which faith, hope and love are restored. It readies me to listen to words that ring with eternal truths. Silence is almost like a psychic force that produces a heightened capacity for meditation, prayer, and contemplation” (Pathways of Spiritual Living, pp. 56-57).
“Contemplative prayer is silence, the ‘symbol of the world to come’ or ‘silent love.’ 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 His incarnate Word, who suffered, died, and rose; in this silence the Spirit of adoption enables us to share in the prayer of Jesus” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2717).
Saint Pope John Paul II adds the following about the importance of silence while praying: “Listening and meditation are nourished by silence…. A discovery of the importance of silence is one of the secrets of practicing contemplation and meditation. One drawback of a society dominated by technology and the mass media is the fact that silence becomes increasingly difficult to achieve.”
To be aware of God’s presence within your soul is a great help in the spiritual journey. The Benedictine monk and well known spiritual writer, Dom Hubert van Zellar, makes this point in a wonderful way in How to Find God:
“The discovery of God present in the soul is one of the most momentous in the soul’s spiritual career…Once the soul has grasped the significance of this doctrine [that God indwells a baptized soul that is in sanctifying grace], the whole horizon changes; the implications are limitless…More and more, the soul of prayer should come to realize that it is the Holy Spirit who is acting….” (edited from pages 119-121).
This great discovery of God present in your soul is nurtured by silent prayer. I therefore close with these challenging but also encouraging words from one of the great Masters of prayer in the Catholic tradition, Father Jean Nicolas Grou, who writes:
“Do not tell me you can pray with your heart only when you are praying with your mouth….The heart when it prays often invites and even forces the mouth to be silent: and if this silence is unknown to you…how greatly you are to be pitied if you know nothing of this interior prayer and never practice it. My intention is not by any means to disturb and alarm Christian souls [but] to convince them that there is a more excellent way than praying aloud…to beg the Holy Spirit to teach us…to try again and again to keep silence in God’s presence for a few moments; to refuse to be discouraged; to keep our imagination from taking fright; to accustom our minds to it little by little. [T]hose who follow this road with discretion will find it profitable, and will be glad that they made the effort….” (How to Pray, pp.63-67, as edited).
Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.
P.S. In nature God is present in his creation by His immensity, similar to how an artist is present in his work, but in a more radical or powerful way. But by way of sanctifying grace, God truly indwells a baptized soul, not secondarily but as truly and really present. The title for this note comes from a colorized FB post which said: “Some relationships are nurtured in silence.”
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