I attended a half-day Advent conference entitled The Silence of Mary. The morning was a much needed retreat from the maddening rush and noise of a city caught up in pre-Christmas frenzy. It was also the day after the horrific school shooting in Connecticut and the stabbing of 22 school children and one elderly woman in China. The world was a noisy, confused, angry place on the morning of the conference.
The priest giving the conference pointed out that silence is a pre-condition for prayer. This is how God reveals Himself to us, and it is necessary for our spiritual growth and for the “peace (that is not) as the world gives.” (Jn. 14:27) In silence and stillness, God speaks to us. Pope Paul VI wrote that “commotion, din, feverish activity, outward appearance and the crowd all threaten man’s inner awareness. (And so because of this) he lacks silence with its genuine voice speaking in the depths of his being: he lacks order, he lacks prayer, he lacks peace, he lacks himself.”
We only need to look to the Holy Family to find a model of silence. St. Joseph never speaks in the Bible but we can say without a doubt that he was a grace-filled lover of God, a man who knew himself through the light of God. Mary “pondered all those things in her heart.” (Lk. 2:19) When we read accounts of our Blessed Mother from the Bible as well as from saints and Church writers, what is striking is how silent she is. When the Angel Gabriel appeared to her, the recorded conversation contains no extraneous words, only those that are needed to be said by both. In her appearances to holy men, women and children throughout history, Mother Mary says very little, but what she does say carries deep meaning. Jesus often retired to a quiet place to pray. The Holy Family was filled with humility; a virtue that is necessary for interior and exterior silence. Since they were so close to God, their life in Nazareth would have been centered on quiet prayer in the midst of their daily lives.
During the conference, we reflected on the fact that knowledge of God through silent prayer brings about a knowledge of ourselves through the light of Christ. Knowledge of God and knowledge of self together produce compassionate knowledge of our neighbor as we look at others through the light of Christ. The news headlines show us clearly that compassionate knowledge of our neighbor is sorely lacking in today’s world, which is polluted with so much noise and distraction. We have lost our sense of God’s presence amidst the cacophony.
While we can’t change the actions of an entire society, we can change ourselves and perhaps our silence, both exterior and interior, will encourage others to seek the same. A quiet place where we can be alone in prayer and meditation; an attitude encouraged by St. Francis de Sales to “retire occasionally in the solitude of our heart, while we are outwardly engaged in business or conversation,” are important in order to heal ourselves and through our prayer and compassion, to heal the world.
In times of unspeakable tragedy, we understandably react by asking why and demanding solutions. These reactions, while human, are full of noise and action. Our hearts are neither still nor quiet. Instead of reacting, we must be recollected, pondering all things in our hearts, and quietly listening to the voice of God in order to seek His will.
Heed the words of St. Bernard of Clairvaux: “For the voice of God does not speak amid the din and the bustle of the world, nor is it heard in any public gathering. Rather secret counsel seeks to be heard also in secret. And so, because of this, happiness will be given to us if we listen to God in solitude.”