The Grace of Silence in a Noisy World

The pastor in Georges Bernanos’ 1936 novel “The Diary of a Country Priest” is musing about the spiritual life when he says: “We are encouraged to keep silence. But that is backwards. Silence keeps us.”

We sense this understanding in Jesus’ practice of seeking solitude and silence after a busy day of ministry. “Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed” (Mk 1:35). When the apostles return from a mission, he says to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while” (Mk 6:31).

Many of the people we deal with are harried by the noise in their lives. They may spend most of the day in a noisy workplace and then sit in traffic on the way home. And even at home, if there is not the chatter and movement of children, the restless atmosphere may be self-induced by a steady TV background — whether the set is watched or not. When moments of silence become rarer in our lives, the more fearful of silence we become and the more unable we are to sustain silence without filling it with inner noise. Father Henri Nouwen described this experience: “As soon as I decide to stay in my solitude, confusing ideas, disturbing images, wild fantasies and weird associations jump about in my mind like monkeys in a banana tree. Anger and greed begin to show their ugly faces. I give long, hostile speeches to my enemies and dream lustful dreams in which I am wealthy, influential and very attractive — or poor, ugly and in need of immediate consolation.”

Controlling the Foreground

Probably more than at any other time in history, people are suffering from “dominance of the foreground.” The foreground in this phrase means just what it says: whatever is in front of you and can get your attention without requiring you to look over your shoulder or turn around. In fact, it is hard to ignore.

But it is more than what is in your visual foreground. It is what is on your mind, especially the residual images of people and events that you can’t erase simply by willing it. These images might be good (a spouse, a child, a fiancée), or painful (a tragic wreck, a hate crime), or harmful (pornography or a hope of revenge). These images, especially the ones we don’t want, cannot be dismissed easily from our minds and may haunt us for days or weeks, so we must not carelessly let them in. They are like whining mosquitoes we can’t swat away once they get in the house.

When you are dominated by the foreground, your life is manipulated by these changing images, and there is no stability or peace. The secret of inner peace is to be dominated by a background, which means a firm philosophy of life by which everything that comes into our foreground is judged and evaluated. Without that, what is in the foreground sets its own agenda for our life and dominates our perception of reality. When things are going well, we are satisfied and at peace, but our equilibrium may be upset at any moment because it is on an unstable foundation.

The background of people of faith is what they have come to believe as the meaning of life, their creed, their theology. If they really have embraced this faith as the core of their life, it becomes like a backbone holding up the whole structure.

Bombardment of Bad News

Today, because of electronic media and around-the-clock news services, our foreground has expanded exponentially. We can know immediately what is happening anywhere in the world, and because we depend on the news services to bring that information, they decide what we will know. Because they want to get our attention and keep us listening or watching, they deliver mostly shocking news — calamities, scandals, wars, infidelities. If you are dominated by the foreground, you are never at rest — or only at rest in the brief interludes between the last bad news and the most recent.

The result is great unrest and anxiety, but beyond that and worse, a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. The world is going to hell in a handbasket, and no one can do anything about it.

A person whose life is governed by a background — an internalized philosophy or theology of life — is not thrown off base by shocking or terrifying news. Everything that comes into the foreground is subject to review by the values held firmly in the background. The psalmist says of the just man, “He shall not fear an ill report; his heart is steadfast, trusting the Lord” (Ps 112:7).

For one who holds the Christian view that the world is in the hands of a loving God, even the most terrible news — the horror of 9/11, for instance — does not change anything basic. We know that because of the free will of human beings, which comes from God, sin will be in the world until the end of time and there will always be wars and rumors of war. We are shocked and saddened by bad news, like everyone else, but our understanding of the world and of life is not changed by the reports. We can continue to be at peace in the midst of the most painful reality. What is happening, bad or good, does not alter our conviction that all is done within the plan of God, who is and always will be in control.

Finding Your Focus

Unfortunately, not everyone who subscribes to being Christian really has absorbed the Faith as the heart and core of their existence. This is true of the adherents of any faith system or philosophy. As long as the acceptance of a creed is only social, cultural or intellectual, it cannot bring the inner security that gives peace in the face of life’s disturbances.

The first quest is to find the truth that will be a solid basis for one’s life. This may take a long time, or it may take a relatively short time if we can believe in the truth that has been handed on in a family or other stable environment. But long or short, this truth has to be made one’s own. This may be done almost instinctively by living with and listening to those who embody this truth, but to be held and owned as the anchor of one’s own life there must be reflection on one’s own life in silence. The stimulus for this reflection may be sought in nature, in poetry, in art, in literature or in spiritual classics, among which, for those in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Bible holds pride of place. These sources require some times of silence if the truth they carry is to penetrate our depths. For Christians, of course, the focus must ultimately be not on ideas or sunsets but in a person, Jesus, toward whom these sources of reflection lead us.

Silence makes it possible for us to listen to what really is in our heart. There are so many voices, more than ever in our electronic culture, with so many conflicting messages, that add to the ordinary noises of our day that they may keep us from hearing what we really think and feel inside — unless we carve out times of silence.

For a Christian, or any person of faith, this silence is much more than finding moments of peace; it is finding the enduring peace that will continue into all of life and persist in spite of the noise.

Retreat to Your Inner Room

One of Father Karl Rahner’s statements has had great staying power: “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or not exist at all.” Though the word “mystic” has confusing reverberations, he meant that the Christian of the future will have to make more effort than ever to be in contact with the Mystery, God, and to seek union with God. In a Christian culture, one can rely on a community of common convictions and observances to support the Faith, but those days are gone. Postmodern culture not only does not support the Christian life, but it actively challenges and attacks its convictions. Unless Christians enter more directly and consistently into the presence of the Mystery without expecting the support of the spiritual environment, the inner spring of faith will gradually dry up.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your father in secret” (Mt 6:6). This encounter must be experienced privately and as much as possible away from interruption. From the time of St. Augustine, this inner room has been seen in Christian tradition as a metaphor for the human heart, where God can be entertained as a guest at any time. Perhaps this is closer to Jesus’ thought than was expected, because, to date, archaeology has not located a Galilean farmhouse with an inner room.

Meeting God Regularly

Two related developments in spirituality since the Second Vatican Council have given new impetus to the search for God in quiet: the programs of contemplative prayer and the widespread practice in parishes of perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. These are very encouraging signs for the future. But, at the same time, they are calls to action for the ministers of the Church, who in the future must do more to assist the faithful in understanding the ways of silent prayer. And in this arena you cannot help someone understand something you haven’t done yourself.

A beautiful strategy for this type of pastoral leadership is presented in the wilderness journey in the Book of Exodus. There Moses is described as undertaking the practice of pitching a tent outside the camp wherever the community stopped. He called it the “tent of meeting,” not as a gathering place for the community, but as a place to meet the Lord. “Whenever Moses went to the tent, the people would all rise and stand at the entrance of their own tents, watching Moses until he entered the tent. As Moses entered the tent, the column of cloud would come down and stand at the entrance of the tent while the Lord spoke with Moses. On seeing the column of cloud stand at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise and bow down at the entrance of their own tents” (Ex 33:7-10).

The people could relax and meet God themselves when they knew that Moses, their leader, was with God in the meeting tent. They did not expect Moses to know the way through the wilderness, which was uncharted and dangerous, but they wanted him to be in touch with the Lord, who did know the way. They were watching Moses to see if he would go into the meeting tent, and when he did, they could settle down and meet God in their own tents.

The people we lead as pastors and spiritual directors do not expect us to be God or the Messiah, but to be servants of God who are friends of God because we come into his presence regularly in the silence of prayer.

When they know that we faithfully go to the meeting tent to meet God, they can relax and go to meet him in their own tents.

FATHER JEROME KODELL, OSB, is the former abbot of Subiaco Abbey in Arkansas.