Many years ago I was vacationing with a friend in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina It was late at night. A few deer were our only companions on the mountain top. It was pitch black. We couldn't even see each other. The stars were out all over the heavens in a spectacular display. We were gazing toward the heavens and my friend and I were silent for the longest while. And the silence was penetrating. No cars, no planes, no sirens, no dogs barking, no boomboxes blasting, no words shared between us.
I still remember that moment. It was perhaps the deepest encounter with silence in my life. The whole moment inserted us into the mystical; the silence itself was enrapturing.
I have loved silence now for many years. When I was in treatment for my illness, I learned that spending an hour before the Blessed Sacrament each night in the center's chapel allowed me some relief from my depression and self loathing. There was consolation in the silence. I heard God speak -- words that were infused directly into my soul.
In fact, silence is the language God speaks. Or rather, God speaks in the silence. If we are to learn to hear God speaking to us, it is very necessary for us to learn to be comfortable with silence.
In the silence we will hear the voices that inhabit our mind and our soul -- the harsh voices that may have been with us since childhood, and the soft, gentle voices of our friends, including the soft gentle Voice of God. Elijah revealed the gift of the silence of God thousands of years ago:
"Elijah came to a cave where he looked for shelter. Then the Lord said to him, 'Go outside and stand on the mountain before the Lord; the Lord will be passing by.' A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks -- but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake -- but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there was a fire -- but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire was a tiny whispering sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave" I Kings 19:9,11-13.
So, the mystery of silence is where the Lord is. When we enter silence we enter as if upon a vast ocean. We enter upon the vast communication system of the universe; we think we hear the music of the spheres, as I was sure we did on that night long ago on the mountain top. But we also entered upon the silence of mystery. The mystery of God's presence almost necessarily involves silence. Silence is the language of mystery.
Many of us have difficulty with silence because we avoid dealing with what we will hear in the silence. We are uncomfortable with the cacophony of voices in our own head that vie for attention. Another reason we have difficulty with silence outside of us, the silence of the night around us, is because we cannot quiet our selves. We cannot sink deep into the well of silence inside of us where we touch the silent ocean, which is God's universe. God's universe is never so close as the bottom of the well at the "bottom" of our souls. We cannot quiet our limbs enough to sit or lie still. We are restless.
Restlessness is the opposite of silence and silence is the antidote for restlessness. If we want to be comfortable with the gift of silence, we have to go through a period (perhaps a long one) of putting up with restlessness and confronting it head on.
Learning to be comfortable with silence is like putting a child to bed; it takes time and patience and not a bit of cleverness to get our inner child to settle down and alleviate its fears, to be at peace, even for a moment.
I know. I have been practicing Centering Prayer for many years now, but it took me a long time to be comfortable with it. In Centering Prayer, we are bid to be quiet, to settle down. We begin by repeating a prayer word such as "love" or "Jesus" that will quiet our mind. We are encouraged to just let the thoughts go by as if they were boats floating down a river. We are to resist the tendency to jump onto one or another boat; that is, to engage any particular thought. As I have a very active mind at times, this took a great deal of patience and a long time. But with the encouragement of my spiritual director I did persevere. I am still only relatively successful at "creating" silence in myself, but I do allow silence to enfold me when it sneaks up on me.
Dealing with silence, I see at this moment, is like a game. One moment, I run from it; the next, I embrace it. It's a game of "hide and go seek." But it is a wonderful game, a very engaging game that has its reward in simply playing it, or rather, playing along with it.
These days, I spend most of my time in silence. I have a nice CD collection, but I seldom use it. When I am out in a crowd at a party or a carnival, I have to retreat to the fringe of the crowd for awhile every twenty minutes or so. My friends are used to, and respect, this craving of mine for silence.
It would be ultimately frustrating for me to recommend long periods of silence to most of you for, in our busy world, with children or grandchildren running around the house, the phone ringing, the TV blaring, dogs barking, external silence seems impossible. A friend told me one time that when she craves silence, she retreats to the bathroom for a few minutes. It was much easier to enter silence before the Industrial Revolution; the world was much more silent then.
Do not be disheartened, my reader, before you start. Look for a few seconds of silence at a time, and when they come, just simply embrace the moment. We can enter silence in simple ways. When we are driving, we can turn off the radio, and just be with ourselves. We can just enjoy the goodness of being, rather than thinking or doing. We can sink into ourselves in a check out line at the grocery store, instead of waiting impatiently. We can resist the temptation to constant chatter with our companions. We can learn to enjoy silence with another without feeling an obligation to make small talk. We can learn to put pauses in our conversations to allow God to join in.
And when you awaken at night, you can sit quietly for a few moments (some of us still with a cigarette or pipe) and just enjoy the rapture of the night silence. I am doing that at this moment. There is a delightful breeze blowing. All I can hear is the "tap-tap" of my computer keyboard and the distant whir of traffic a mile away on the beltway. And I can hear the crickets eleven floors below. I like the night. It is the time that I enjoy the most and write the most productively. I have learned to enjoy the laws of silence and of mystery.
For me the most important moment of silence is after communion at holy Mass. I try to create a space for the entire congregation to sink into silence for about a minute to just be with Jesus as he embraces our souls. Sometimes this silence works; sometimes it doesn't. What is really neat is when there are little children at Mass to hear in the background, not loud cries but a hushed murmur as a counterpoint to the silence the congregation shares. When you are at Eucharist, try to remember to settle yourself for a brief, loving moment before you begin the rest of your day. Sometimes at Eucharist that silence is so powerful it is enrapturing and I come out of it with a deep sigh as if my spirit had left my body; I often feel ravished by the silence.
What you will experience after a while, is that just one moment -- a few seconds -- of silence is enough for us. One moment of silence may insert us into mystery and, therefore, into the dimension of the eternal.
When we pray, the most important part of our prayer is to enter into silence. Words between us and God need be very few.
God knows what we need; we do not have to rattle on in our prayer. We want to make our prayer a dialogue. If we want to hear God speak to us, we have to learn God's language, the language of silence. A couple, married for many years, can sit on the couch together and not utter a word for long periods of time. They can be comfortable just "being with" the other. And sometimes, after minutes of silence together, they can voice the same thought almost simultaneously.
What is really neat is that my puppy and I can share silence together. I like to pet him without saying anything and he just absorbs the touch and may respond silently by placing his paw over my foot. So, too, with God. We can learn simply to " just be" with God. Only a few words are necessary.
For those of you who think you might enjoy the discipline of silence (for it is a discipline, a "knack" to be acquired, I would recommend Centering Prayer.) Start with ten minutes in the morning and/or ten minutes at night. Sit quietly (I like to lie on my bed). And select a prayer-word such as "Jesus" or "love" or "peace." Repeat the prayer-word to help settle yourself. Soon the word will fall away and you will enter silence. Build up to twenty minutes twice a day if you can. The challenge for all of us is to resist grabbing onto thoughts that pass through our head. We should just notice them and let them go by. Yes, entering silence requires discipline. But that means it can be acquired with practice.
At any rate, I hope to sensitize you, my reader, to the dimension of silence that we might often miss. There is another dimension of reality on the other side of space and time that is very close to us; it is in our souls. That dimension is eternity, which can break into our busy lives at any moment. The challenge is to embrace the mystery of silence and the silence of mystery.
For more on Centering Prayer see, Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart, Crossroads Publishing Co,, NY.