French philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Pascal said it artfully, but so many spiritual masters and saints have lived it; silence is a powerful, forgotten force in the world.
Many people are intimidated by the thought of practising silence. Its mastery takes a lifetime. The first thing we must recognize is that silence is not merely the absence of noise. It is a tuning-in. God's principal language is silence. So, rather than thinking of silence as an empty space we've carved out for our own purposes, consider silence as a state of receptivity and docility: a waiting-to-hear space. It is the holiest posture we can adopt, that of listening and beholding.
The tragedy of our world is never better summed up than in the fury of senseless noise that stubbornly hates silence. — Cardinal Robert Sarah
In his book The Power of Silence against the Dictatorship of Noise, Cardinal Robert Sarah bemoans the lack of recollection and silence in the modern world. “Our world no longer hears God because it is constantly speaking at a devastating speed and volume in order to say nothing. Modern civilization does not know how to be quiet ... man desperately awaits noise so that it will bring him a few consolations. Noise is a deceptive, addictive, and false tranquilizer. The tragedy of our world is never better summed up than in the fury of senseless noise that stubbornly hates silence.”
Even in our times of leisure, social media has robbed us of restfulness. Many of us know the familiar tug to share vacation photos immediately after seeing something remarkable (or, more accurately, unremarkable). We don't want to sit and savour even the best moments of our lives. We want to live-stream them. For people we don't really know. We can't sit alone and watch our children blissfully play without capturing it for other people who aren't their parents and who don't matter at all to the child.
“If people wander away from the devouring fire of the spirit's silence, they always end up adoring idols,” Cardinal Sarah writes. If aliens descended tomorrow, they would most certainly assume that the phones were the heads of state. They are the well-worshipped gods whose dogmas empty our churches and silence our prayers.
“Without silence,” Cardinal Sarah writes, “God disappears in the noise. And this noise becomes all the more obsessive because God is absent. Unless the world rediscovers silence, it is lost. The earth then rushes into nothingness.”
The modern world claims to have everything it needs and hence has no use for God. Our mental health and unprecedented levels of loneliness would indicate otherwise.
None of us are strangers to that compulsive scanning the radio or frantically scrolling through any and every app for something to give us a sense of connection or consolation. Are we self-aware enough to recognize what, or rather who it is for whom we are looking? The modern world claims to have everything it needs and hence has no use for God. Our mental health and unprecedented levels of loneliness would indicate otherwise.
An honest and humble inventory of our lives is a good place to start. When I rise in the morning, how much time do I let pass before checking my phone? To what do I turn when I am left with an open moment? Do I intentionally participate in God's great silence in those moments where I am doing “mindless work” or do I turn on music or background noise? Do I text acquaintances instead of developing God-given talents and gifts? What about the spiritual and corporal acts of mercy? Do I miss out on those because promises of prayer over Facebook are the only support I feel like offering?
These questions are not meant to dishearten us but instead to awaken us. We were created to commune with God. The vine and the branches isn't a cutesy story. We will, very truly, shrivel up and die without the lifeblood that flows through silence with God.
“Man must join a resistance movement,” Cardinal Sarah writes. “What will become of our world if it does not look for intervals of silence? Interior rest and harmony can flow only from silence. Without it, life does not exist. The greatest mysteries in the world are born and unfold in silence. What is extraordinary is always silent.”