Encountering Christ in the Silence

I’ve mentioned to you before how I enjoy a long walk up Madison Avenue, and back down Fifth, early Saturday and Sunday mornings: it’s quiet, no traffic, the air is clean, nobody’s out.

Couple weeks ago a homeless man on a bench saw me coming and waved. “Isn’t it great to be out here when it’s so quiet?” I felt kind of bad: I chose to be out there; he had to be. But, as I smiled back at him, I replied, “You bet it is!”

We need silence, don’t we? St. Padre Pio preached, “The language God enjoys most is silence.” The psalmist wrote, “In quiet and confidence shall be thy strength.”

One of my Christmas presents was the book “Silence: A Christian History” by acclaimed scholar Diarmaid MacCulloch. I had enjoyed his earlier works on the Reformation and Thomas Cranmer, so I relished his newest, and was not let down. He argues that true religion, wisdom, and art all depend on silence. And he makes the remarkable observation that the gospels are silent about the most essential aspect of Jesus: the event of His Resurrection!

One wonders if contemporary culture is in a conspiracy against silence! Even when we’re alone, as rare as that might be, we run from quiet, preferring radio, TV, or the iPhone.

One dad was telling me how he and his wife discipline their five-year-old son with a tried-and-true way: by banishing him to a corner of his room. Come to find out, the boy seemed to relish it! There he sat alone, in silence, or just reading, singing, talking to imaginary friends as kids do…smart child!

The Church has always encouraged silence. Visitors always comment on the atmosphere of reverence and whisper that fills our churches, as we recognize we’re in a house where we speak and listen to God, not to each other. The Mass itself has moments of silence prescribed, as we pause to call to mind our sins, or as we keep quiet after reception of Holy Communion. Remember how we used to shut up between noon and three on Good Friday, to recall our Lord’s Passion? And we all have grateful memories of days of recollection and retreats where silence was mandated.

More and more parishes now offer Eucharistic Adoration, with people simply quiet before Jesus.

When I visit Calvary Hospital, with its renowned care for the dying, I marvel at how families gather around their dying parent or spouse, who is often unable to speak. There may be silence there, but is there ever communication going on!

February is classically devoted to the Hidden Life of Jesus. You know what this is? Think about it. From the events we associate with Christmas—the Nativity, Epiphany, Flight into Egypt, return to Nazareth—with the exception of His three days “lost in the temple” when he was 12, we know nothing of the life of Christ! He was alone with Mary and Joseph in Nazareth. Thirty of His 33 years on earth were hidden, secluded, silent. Not a real impressive CV here! And, as the gospels relate, even during His Public Life, Jesus would often “go off to a secluded place to pray”…in silence!

As you read this column—thanks for doing so, by the way!—I’ll be on retreat. We priests, deacons, and consecrated religious women and men are expected to make an annual retreat, which is a time of silent prayer and reflection. Sure, you can ponder the Bible, do spiritual reading, or listen to a preacher…but the meat and potatoes of a retreat is silence.

St. Peter talked too much, didn’t he, which is why he got into trouble. The gospels tell us, though, that, at least on one occasion, at the Transfiguration of the Lord on Mt. Tabor, “He did not know what to say,” and simply exclaimed to Jesus, “Lord it’s good to be here with you!” Then, he shut up.

Not a bad prayer at all.