And Yahweh passed by. There was first a windstorm which rent the mountains and broke the rocks into pieces before Yahweh, but Yahweh was not in the wind. After the storm, an earthquake, but Yahweh was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, a fire but Yahweh was not in the fire. After the fire, the murmur of a gentle breeze. When Elijah perceived it, he covered his face with his cloak, went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (I Kings 19: 11b-13)
Silence at being in the presence of the Divine is one of the primary reactions one gets from the act of adoration. It is our response to the sense of mystery at being in the presence of Someone far greater than ourselves. With the Apostolic Letter Patris corde (With a Father’s Heart), Pope Francis proclaimed the year of St. Joseph to mark 150 years since Pope Pius IX declared St. Joseph the Patron of the Universal Church. In the apostolic letter, Pope Francis describes St. Joseph as a beloved, tender and obedient father. He teaches the value, dignity and joy of work lovingly. Since we are in the Year of St. Joseph, it is fitting to reflect upon the person of St. Joseph and the vocation to silence. St. Joseph is highly revered in the Church. A carpenter by trade, he trained Jesus and it was under his and Mary’s guidance that Jesus “grew in wisdom” (Lk 2:52). There is something about him that I find most fascinating: his words are not recorded anywhere in the Bible. He was a man of silence. We live in a busy world and we can feel its effects. One wakes up, prays, celebrates Mass and goes to work. At work, there is always something to do: meetings, movement and everyone is very busy. Some have headphones plugged in and so the noise of the street is blocked out by the noise of our own choosing. A priest indeed speaks several times during the day. Yet you would agree with me that there are golden moments of silence that enrich his day and ministry. Work is good but what is life without a moment of silence? Anthony de Mello once told the story of a monastery, very far from here, in which the monks had a very strict rule of silence. It was so strict that each member was only allowed to speak one sentence once every year. That was not all, the words had to be spoken before the abbot and his council. It was the turn of a monk and his first words were “The cell is too cold”. The next year, he returned to say, “No hot water”. At the third opportunity, he was fed up with the situation, so he said: “I quit”. While reviewing his words, a member of the council simply wrote: “I’m not surprised, he has been complaining ever since he got here”. The monk had spent most of his time pondering on the problems in his environment more than the depth of his vocation to prayer. He was physically present but spiritually absent.
The enemies of silence.
There are three enemies of silence that we must be wary of and they are linked together: gossip, not minding one’s business and false humility. Gossip destroys the peace of the soul and it is a sin against charity for it seeks to spread bad news about others. Ephesians 4:29 says: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” In the Angelus on the 6th September 2020, while commenting on the Gospel of the day (Mt 18:15-20), Pope Francis calls gossip a plague worse than COVID. It is a tool of the devil to sow division in the Church by separating brothers and sisters destroying the community. Make your words soft and sweet for you do not know which ones you have to eat. Not minding one’s business: A person who gossips cannot mind his own business. Such a person is always seeking to feed the habit of gossip by prying into the private lives of others and if nothing can be found, set traps to make another person fall. There must always be a weakness in the other person worth sharing. To such persons, the words of Thomas Merton come as sound advice: “To be a contemplative, you must learn to mind your own business”. False humility: A person who gossips and does not mind his business will always seek a way to cover his weaknesses since he would not want to be discovered. The best way to hide is to put up a false sense of humility. False humility robs one of inner peace as it occupies the space for prayer and replaces it with the rehearsals for your next show of false humility. How can such a person be silent?
Silence as non-interference:
In most pictures of the Holy Family, we see St. Joseph standing behind Mary. He takes a protective posture yet does not interfere. He says nothing yet his presence gives a deep feeling of comfort to his family. Without being told, he knows that he has witnessed something extraordinary. He is before not just an ordinary child, but one for whom he would give up everything to love. This type of acceptance is an invitation to us. Our priestly calling places us constantly before the Divine. We have centuries of theological development that explains what happened at the birth of Christ, yet it is the spiritual encounter between God and man that sits at the heart of adoration. Silence. Here I am before my Creator and my God. Attracted by the realisation that I am before Someone greater than me and yet feeling unworthy in his presence. This is the territory where silence reigns. The realization that I have been drawn into an encounter with my Creator and my God. The King and Spouse of my soul and the centre of my life. The One who loves me immensely.
Silence is not empty:
This silence is not empty. It is an act of love. Some religions speak of silence as a state of emptiness. For instance, in Buddhism, Śūnyatā (pronounced shunyata) as a meditative state is said to be reached when “not attending to any themes, one enters and remains in internal emptiness”. A moment in time when nothingness reigns due to a higher state of awareness. Silence is more. Silence is an act of love. In the moment of silence, I am aware yet overwhelmed by the love of God for me. The love of God who became man to save humanity. Like a lover who is entranced by her beloved, I am caught up in this awareness yet not cut away from reality. Cardinal Sarah comments that in silence “we simply look at God and allow him to look at us and to envelop us in the mystery of his majesty and love”. Silence has a place in my daily life. Moments of silence help me sneak away from the busy day to say “Lord how much I love you. Help me to love you more!” Silence becomes a powerful act of love which enriches my day.
Silence is the bridge to greater understanding:
“Be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46: 10). I think St. Joseph had an idea of what he was entering into but may not have known the full magnitude. As events unfolded, he began to understand better his relationship with the Son of God. As an act of love, silence draws us closer to God. As we move closer, each person in his unique way begins to discover something special about communion with God. It leads to greater growth in understanding because I see more clearly who I am as regards God and my neighbour.
Silence enriches our lives:
Silence enables me to see more clearly, to love more dearly and to follow the Lord more nearly. That is, I see more clearly the connection between my daily experiences and the love of God for me; I respond in love knowing that like a child my gestures may seem inadequate but to God, it is the intention, not just the action that matters; I follow knowing that it is the Lord that leads me. I believe in the love of my Heavenly Father even when He is silent; when I cannot feel his touch when I cannot hear his voice or see Him in the actions of my fellowmen. I realise that He is closer in my moments of doubt, difficulty and sadness: comforting me, consoling me and carrying me when I cannot go on. I am comforted by His words: “For even if a mother forgets the baby at her breasts, I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:15). Silence enriches my daily work. My encounter with God puts me at the centre of his love. I am the apple of His eye (Ps 17:8). Caritas Christi urget nos (2 Cor 5:14). The love of Christ compels us to put into action the love that we enjoy. To share with others the profound closeness of God with us through our work. Acta, non verba. Actions, not words. It does not often require that we speak; it is manifest through our work. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16). Silence saves us in difficult situations. A man was condemned to die by hanging. At the point of execution, the rope broke. Since it was the custom in the kingdom to spare the life of anyone in such an extraordinary circumstance, the report was taken to the king. Just as he was about to sign the amnesty he asked if the condemned man had said anything after the rope broke. The officer promptly replied that the prisoner said that they do not even know how to make ropes in the kingdom. “Well”, replied the king, “hang him until he’s dead with the best ropes you can find”. “Don’t make a bad situation worse”. These invaluable words of Very Rev. Fr. Eddie Hartnett SMA, express the wisdom in silence, especially in controversial situations. Sometimes, it is better to say nothing than to be heard everywhere. After all, not everyone is interested in what you have to say nor is there a guarantee that you would be understood by all your listeners. Except in cases when there is a grave need to speak out for the truth, time heals and resolves most situations.
Silence enriches the liturgy:
Optatam totius n.2 teaches that our participation in the threefold office of Christ is rooted in the Eucharist. Celebrate Mass in such a way that the richness therein is exposed. The best catechesis on the Eucharist is the Eucharist well celebrated. St. Charles Borromeo teaches that adequate preparation and silence in the sacristy enhance adequate preparation for Mass. He says: “Are you in charge of a parish? If so, do not neglect the parish of your own soul, do not give yourself to others so completely that you have nothing left for yourself… (we must) meditate before, during and after everything we do.”7 The manner of celebration must foster a sense of the sacred. Reflect on the sacrament that you administer and think about the words that you say to the Lord when praying the Office. Moments of silence have been provided in the rubrics of the Mass for us to pray. For instance, respect the pause before the confietor and the collect, at the elevation of the Host and the Chalice during consecration and before the post-Communion prayer. Aim at deriving spiritual benefits from the Mass. Besides, the silence after compline until after morning Mass keeps one’s mind focused.
Tips for maintaining silence:
Create a “me time”. Take out 15 minutes every day to stay away from noise: no phones, television or other noise generating gadgets. This time could be used to read or rest in silence. The mobile phone is one of the most useful tools in our hands. It is also one of the greatest sources of distraction since the blue light it emits robs us of our sleep. Avoid using the cell phone as your alarm clock and place it as far away from your bed as possible. Pope Francis gives another helpful tip. When you are tempted to speak out to fill the gap, bite your tongue…. literally. We must speak only when we have something to say, not because we want to say something. Let us return to the image of the Holy Family. It is like a photograph of a moment in history. As pictures are silent yet speak a thousand words, so too does the Incarnation speak of the Eternal Word, the Son of God and invites us to worship. We have the silence of St. Joseph as our model: a fruitful and meaningful silence that draws us into a deeper love of God who loved us first.
• A reflection delivered by Rev. Fr. Jerome Omoregie at the first Quarterly Collection, Ikeja Region held at St. Agnes Catholic Church, Maryland, Lagos.