Common Wisdom: Sshhhh. . . .

When the bishops from the northwestern states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Alaska paid their ad limina visits to the Vatican on October 9, Pope John Paul II focused his remarks on the ups and downs of liturgical renewal in the 30 years since the Second Vatican Council.

“The challenge now,” he said, “is to move beyond whatever misunderstandings there have been and to reach the proper point of balance, especially by entering more deeply into the contemplative dimension of worship.” Included in that dimension is the “sense of awe, reverence, and adoration” so fundamental to our relationship with God.

Among a series of wise points regarding the liturgy, the pope mentioned one that leaps out to anyone who cherishes the contemplative dimension. The active participation in the Mass that asks all the faithful to take part in “gesture, word, song, and service” in no way precludes “silence, stillness, and listening: Indeed it demands it.”

Here is affirmation that silence and stillness are essential to the liturgy and to life. In their own way the experiences of silence and stillness, when we listen to the readings, the homily, the music, or the prayers, are “profoundly active.” However, says the Holy Father, “In a culture which neither favors nor fosters meditative quiet, the art of interior listening is learned only with difficulty.” To love silence, therefore, is to be countercultural, and in its devotion to silence the liturgy must be countercultural.

Just as the liturgy in its embrace of silence is countercultural, so also are we when in our ordinary life we look for stillness. If we do not deliberately make way for silence and the activity that comes from silence—that is, meaningful speech—then we are deluged with noise. Everywhere around us is a racket of babble and music we did not ask for but which is meant to save us from the terror or boredom of a moment without sound.

Noise assaults us: CNN in the airport boarding area; soap operas in the hospital waiting room; “Attention, Kroger shoppers” piped over the grocery store speaker system; “beautiful” music soothing us in the dental chair; thudding drums blaring from the car next to us at the stoplight; TV game and talk shows broadcast through deadly days and nights in retirement homes; cacophonous chatter engulfing us as we step from a hotel lobby into the heat of a public reception.

Speech is natural to us; but noise is not. Speech comes from the Word; noise comes from the inferno. If we are to foster the awe, reverence, and adoration through which we may know the Word of Christ, then we must love, and not fear silence and stillness in the Mass and in our life.

From silence comes the Word. From silence God spoke and created the world. From silence He spoke to Mary and came to dwell in her womb. From silence He sent his Holy Spirit at Pentecost to lead His Church.

Meditative quiet, as the pope laments, is neither favored nor fostered in our culture. Yet there is no getting around the simple fact that only in stillness do we learn to listen with the interior ear. Only in stillness can we build the habit of listening, a habit that, when impeded by the jangle of noise, can never develop. Only in stillness do we calm down enough to sense the Lord’s presence. Only in stillness do we find out that the Lord loves us and that we are made to love Him. Silence, then, is not a den of terror; it is rather the place where we fall in love.

When Mary and Martha entertained Jesus in their home, Mary sat at Our Lord’s feet, listening to him, while Martha was distracted with much serving. We recall that it was Martha whom Jesus admonished, telling her that Mary had chosen the better part. Mary chose to be quiet and listen.

“Be still and know that I am God,” says the Lord.

Anyone who becomes accustomed to the discipline—admittedly tough—of rising before the sun, before phones and faxes, before calls for Cheerios and misplaced homework, discovers that the stillness of early morning is the most precious time of the day. Every morning is a resurrection, a time of consolation when we can be with Christ alone.

In that silence of early morning, when “in the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us,” we meditate on the Word and make It our own. In the silence and stillness there is still the possibility for the modern mind to discover the interior life and to learn what it is to listen.


  • Anne Husted Burleigh

    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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