Want to know a great secret for success in prayer and discernment? It’s something that we’re often lacking in modern times, thanks to mobile devices, technology in general, as well as our interior hunger and misguided attempts to be filled. You might have figured out that what I’m referring to is silence.
Silence, or stillness, absence of noise, is a tenet in most religions for their prayer or meditation. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said in a series on Christian prayer, “…I would like to speak of the importance of silence in our relationship with God. In Christ’s own life and prayer, and especially in his experience of the Cross, we see a constant interplay of word and silence.” We can see this in Christ’s own example. He who lived all but three of his thirty-three years in silence—these years are spent in ordinary life and work, unknown to the world. Mary, too, is our model—she was silent in her Fiat in the face of the world, she who kept all things and pondered them in her heart. Silence is something significant, something to strive after.
There are several ways to incorporate silence into our lives. In prayer, silence allows us space to hear God speak to us. Obviously most of us won’t actually hear audible words from the heavens, but rather in inspirations the Holy Spirit gives us in times of prayer. St. Dorotheus said, “Be on guard against many words, for these extinguish completely the holy and most reasonable thoughts as well as the inspirations coming from heaven.” For example, if you always talk and don’t allow your friend to speak, then you won’t get to know your friend at all. How much more our Friend! “To hear God’s Word requires the cultivation of outward and inward silence, so that his voice can resound within our hearts and shape our lives,” said Benedict XVI. If we allow Him to speak in the silence, He will reveal His plan for our lives, including that of our vocation.
Silence inside of prayer is one thing, but how can we cultivate this outward and inward silence Benedict XVI referred to? We can be diligent and guard silence. Of course we don’t all need to be Desert Fathers and run off to a cave in the wilderness. Most of us need to refine this silence in the midst of our busy work days, inside our homes, both of which can be quite lacking in silence.
Outwardly, we can take steps towards greater amounts of silence in our day. Perhaps we can turn off the TV more often. Is it on in the background making noise and we don’t even realize it? Do we watch too many hours in the day? Turn it off for a while. What about the radio? Is it always on with either talk or music? Do you always have it on in the car? Try switching it off sometimes. Allow this silence, even if it’s not comfortable at first—maybe increase the time each time. We can also practice silence in other ways besides sound. One thing I am guilty of is reading on my iPhone as I’m going to bed. This, like the rest, isn’t necessarily bad but one good practice is to guard silence at night to pray, examine our consciences and be with God mentally as we prepare for sleep at night. Reading and other visual tasks or interruptions are not silence. Take note of your day and how often your senses are put to work. Some of these are unavoidable—like billboards on the highway as you drive, calling your attention. Nevertheless, many of them we are in control of and can begin to limit in order to add a few more minutes of silence in our day so as to allow a little more space for God to speak to us. This exterior practice of silence lends itself to interior silence. Psalm 46:10 says “Be still and know that I am God.” How often do we do this? If we are always ‘plugged in’, always listening to someone else’s voice, we aren’t allowing ourselves to be still in God’s presence.
The practice of silence has another benefit in that it lends itself to the development of virtue. Take, for instance, the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. For prudence, “the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it,” silence allows us time to seek God’s counsel in our decisions. Exteriorly, it keeps us from speaking too much. Jesus told us that we will be judged for every idle word. If we pause in silence to see if what we say or do is necessary, we will probably make more prudent choices. Justice, “the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor”, is another one that would increase through proper use of silence. On one hand, it is necessary to speak up in the face of injustice or when charity demands it. However, some of the greatest faults against justice: gossip, back-biting, calumny, slander can all be avoided by discreet silence. How many verses in the Bible, how many saints have warned us about our tongue destroying our neighbor!
Fortitude “is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good”. When we are silent about our neighbors’ faults that affront us, when we suffer attacks and misunderstandings and bear it in silence for Christ, we practice fortitude. The “moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods”, temperance, also relates to silence. St. Francis de Sales said, “…silence…does not refer so much to a literal use of few words, as to not using many useless words.” He goes on to warn about extremes—not being excessively stiff or reserved nor incessantly chattering and babbling on frivolously.
St. Josemaría Escrivá wrote, “Silence is the door-keeper of the interior life.” It helps us pray better and be more in touch with God and what He wants to tell us. It seems that it also can be, when applied correctly, the key to greater virtue in our exterior life.
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