Common Wisdom: Marigolds and Silence

Not long ago we pulled into the parking lot of the local optician, where our son, prescription in hand, was about to invest his savings in a pair of contact lenses. On an adjoining lot is a day care center — a well-run day care center of excellent reputation, owned and operated by a respected mother and daughter. Those in the market for day care would be unlikely to find a place of higher quality.

As we drove into our parking space, I noticed an attractive young blond mother in navy skirt and white blouse, getting ready to help her little blond son into their car. The boy was well-dressed, handsome, and looked happy enough. He seemed to be concentrating on holding — and not spilling — a small square plastic container from which sprouted a three-inch marigold. With Mother’s Day at hand, the marigold was the obvious present for his mother. Nothing unusual here; marigolds in little pots have been standard Mother’s Day gifts at least since someone invented Mother’s Day.

Yet suddenly I felt a wave of sadness for that small gift bearer. It was a warm day; in another month the blacktop pavement on which he was standing would be near to melting in Ohio Valley heat. The boy had probably been at the center since 7:30 that morning; it was now five o’clock — a long day for anybody. His day care arrangement was likely a year-round affair; he would be attending there all summer.

As soon as we were out of earshot of the boy and mother, I asked my husband and my son, “Even if that is the nicest possible day care center, what do you think is its biggest drawback?” My husband and I have been married a long time. Sometimes there are no surprises. “The noise,” he said immediately and predictably. “If I were five years old or fifty years old, I couldn’t stand the noise.” Neither could I; from sun-up to sundown, voices talking, talking.

The boy’s mother is no doubt doing the best thing she knows. The youngster is as happy and bright as any child. His mother probably has researched every avenue of childcare. She is sure her son will benefit from the association with other children and the time he will spend learning something rather than frittering his hours in mindless television watching with a babysitter. The mother is likely convinced that in the time she spends with her son she focuses her attention on him, and he notices the attention. To a certain extent she is right.

Yet something essential is no doubt missing from the lives of both the woman and boy — missing simply because there is no time for it. That missing thing is silence. If either the woman or her son has much silence in a day’s time it would be surprising. If they have silence together it would be even more surprising. How much time would they have, say, when she might be cooking, reading, or whatever, and he might be playing on the floor with his Legos or Matchbox cars? Time when each would be going about his or her own business but doing it together in silence.

Communication in words is essential to people; on the other hand communication is not always so important as communion in silence. If communication is in words, then in silence itself — friendly, of course, not hostile — there is Word. Silence is the prerequisite for hearing the Word at all. Without silence, prayer ceases, revelation comes to a halt and ideas dry up.

Being originates in silence. From silence we come in conception and birth and to silence we will return in death. Speech, our greatest mark of humanity, originates in silence. Without proper formulation in silence, speech is only noise.

People were made for talking, but they were not made for babble. Much of what a child knows himself to be comes from the silence in which he is safe and secure in the presence of a mother and father, yet tuned in to the silence of his own inner voices.

Mothers and fathers, too, require silence; require an opportunity to connect with a world beyond themselves. Home is their place to be silent at times. There is no push to fill the silent spaces with constant words; a touch or a glance can often better establish communion.

And in the end, though we may use words and more words when we pray, our words are not usually answered with words. To our astonishment we often find that the answer is not words, but presence. Without a word spoken, at least in our sense, it seems that the Word speaks and is immediately with us; that is, God gives us not words but himself.

Every woman who has nursed a baby knows something of this sort of presence. On a warm June afternoon a mother takes up her hungry baby and perhaps a book, settles in the big chair by the open bedroom window, puts her feet up, gathers the baby to her breast, where he claims his territorial imperative, and in silence they commune. She may not say a word to him; yet there is a lot going on between them — cuddling, gazing, patting. If she is lucky, he may already have learned to pat her. The only sound is his gentle guzzling. After awhile she may open her book. He continues the rhythmic bobbing of his head as he nurses in tune to that ancient music known to feeding babies. Skin against skin grows warmer and more soothing; the curtains blow gently; the chair seems softer. Before long two pairs of eyes close, the little bobbing head goes still, and the book slides to the floor. The laundry pile in the basement keeps its level; dinner is late that day. But who cares? It is in just such silent afternoons that love grows and mother and child know each other more deeply than they did the day before.


Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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