Many Catholics rightly complain about the absence of silence in some forms of the celebration of our Roman liturgy. It seemed to us important, therefore, in this short essay, to recall the meaning of silence as a Christian ascetical value, and therefore as a necessary condition for deep, contemplative prayer, without forgetting the fact that times of silence are officially prescribed during the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, so as to highlight the importance of silence for a high-quality liturgical renewal.
1. Silence as a Christian ascetical value
In the negative sense, silence is the absence of noise. It can be exterior or interior. Exterior silence involves the absence of sounds both in words and in actions (noises of doors, vehicles, jackhammers, and airplanes, the noisy mechanism of cameras, often accompanied by dazzling flashes, and also of that horrible forest of cell phones that are brandished at arm’s length during our Eucharistic liturgies). Virtuous or mystical silence obviously must be distinguished from reproachful silence, from the refusal to speak to someone, from the silence of omission through cowardice, egotism, or hard-heartedness.
Of course, exterior silence is an ascetical exercise of self-mastery in the use of speech. First of all it may be helpful to recall what asceticism is; this word is not praised to the skies by our consumer society—far from it!—and, we must admit, it frightens our contemporaries, including very often the Christians who are influenced by the spirit of the world. Well, then, what is asceticism? Asceticism is an indispensable means that helps us to remove from our life anything that weighs it down, in other words, anything that hampers our spiritual or interior life and therefore is an obstacle to prayer. Yes, it is indeed in prayer that God communicates his Life to us, in other words, manifests his presence in our soul by irrigating it with the streams of his Trinitarian Love: the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. And prayer is essentially silence. Chattering, the tendency to externalize all the treasures of the soul by expressing them, is supremely harmful to the spiritual life. Carried away toward the exterior by his need to say everything, the chatterer cannot help being far from God, superficial and incapable of any profound activity.
The wisdom books of the Old Testament (Prov 10:8, 11, 13, 14, 18-21, 31, 32; 15:1-7; Sir 19:7-12; 20:1-2, 5-8 or 23:7-15; 28:13-26) are chock-full of exhortations aimed at avoiding sins of the tongue (in particular, slander and calumny). The prophetic books, for their part, mention silence as the expression of reverential fear of God; it is then a preparation for the theophany of God, in other words, the revelation of His presence in our world (Lam 3:26; Zeph 1:7; Hab 2:20; Is 41:1; Zech 2:13). The New Testament is not outdone in this respect. Indeed, there is the Letter of James, which clearly remains the classic passage about controlling the tongue (Jas 3:1-10). However, we know that Jesus himself warned us against wicked words, which are the expression of a depraved heart (Mt 15:19) and even against idle words, for which an accounting will be demanded of us (Mt 12:36). In contrast, we can only be impressed by the silence of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, the Roman governor Pilate and King Herod: Jesus autem tacebat (Mt 26:63). Herod asked him to work a miracle for him personally, and his courtiers would have been amused by it. But Jesus Christ, who was in chains—he, the God of majesty—did not consent to become the buffoon of King Herod, nor to do for that proud man whose curiosity was unhealthy what he granted so generously to the humble and the uneducated.
In reality, true, good silence always belongs to someone who is willing to let others have his place, and especially the Completely-Other, God. In contrast, external noise characterizes the individual who wants to occupy an over-important place, to strut or to show off, or else who wants to fill his interior emptiness, as is the case in many stores and public facilities, and also particularly in the waiting rooms of some dentists, hairdressers..., where they impose incessant background music on you.
As for interior silence, it can achieved by the absence of memories, plans, interior speech, worries…. Still more important, thanks to an act of the will, it can result from the absence of disordered affections or excessive desires. The Fathers of the Church assign an eminent place to silence in the ascetical life. Think of Saint Ambrose (In psalm. 37, 12-15), Saint Augustine, Saint Gregory the Great (Moralia II, 48; XXII, 16; XXX, 16), not to mention Chapter VI of the Rule of Saint Benedict of Nursia on “taciturnity,” or Chapter 62 on grand silence at night, where he adopts the teaching of Cassian. Starting with those spiritual masters, all the medieval founders of religious orders, followed by the mystics of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, insisted not only on the ascetical but also on the mystical importance of silence.
2. Silence as a condition for contemplative prayer
The Gospels say that the Savior himself prayed in silence, particularly at night (Lk 6:12), or while withdrawing to deserted places (Lk 5:16; Mk 1:35). Silence is typical of the meditation by the Word of God; we find it again particularly in Mary’s attitude toward the mystery of her Son (Lk 2:19, 51). The most silent person in the Gospels is of course Saint Joseph; not a single word of his does the New Testament record for us. Saint Basil considers silence not only as an ascetical necessity of monastic life, but also as a condition for encountering God (Letter 2, 2-6: PG 32, 224-232). Silence precedes and prepares for the privileged moment when we have access to God, who then can speak to us face to face as we would do with a friend (cf. Ex 33:11; Num 12:8; Deut 34:10).
Recall, in this regard, that we arrive at the knowledge of God by way of causality, analogy, eminence, but also negation: once we affirm the divine attributes, which are known by natural reason (this is the kataphatic way), we must deny the mode of limited realization thereof that we know here below (this is the apophatic way). Silence is an essential part of the apophatic way of gaining access to God, which was so highly prized by the Fathers of the Church, especially the Greeks; this makes them demand silence of arguments when faced with the mystery of God (Clement of Alexandria, Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa).
It is nonetheless true that silence is above all the positive attitude of someone who prepares to welcome God by listening. Yes, God acts in the silence. Hence this very important remark by the great Saint John of the Cross: “The Father said only one word, namely his Son, and in an eternal silence he always says it: the soul too must hear it in silence.” The Book of Wisdom had already noted in this regard the manner in which God intervened to deliver the chosen people from captivity in Egypt: that unforgettable act took place during the night: “For while gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone, your all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne” (Wis 18:14). Later, this verse would be understood by Christian liturgical tradition as a prefiguration of the silent Incarnation of the Eternal Word in the crib in Bethlehem. As for Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, she would insist on silence as a condition for contemplating God the Holy Trinity.
And so we have to make silence: this is of course an activity, and not a form of idleness. If our “interior cell phone” is always busy because we are “having a conversation” with other creatures, how can the Creator reach us, how can he “call us”? We must therefore purify our mind of its curiosities, the will of its plans, in order to open ourselves totally to the graces of light and strength that God wants to give us profusely: “Father, not my will, but yours be done.” Ignatian “indifference” is therefore a form of silence too.