There are moments in my life that I always look back to and say that I truly love them. It is when I go on my yearly retreat, usually at a monastery, and, having driven into the parking lot, I open the door of my car and get out. Suddenly I am surrounded with the most wonderful silence and peace! The whir of my car motor is ceased, the radio is turned off, the chatter of my conversations on my phone over, and I become immersed in a tranquility only slightly affected by a bird song and the feel of a gentle breeze. I take a deep and cleansing breath and seemingly let go of all the tensions of the past, my ministry, my driving, and walk into the mysterious presence of the Holy One.
It is hard to describe the healing properties of this silence. It is like being enveloped in a sense of care and love, an environment of promise and right order, a new creation of peace; in a word: a caress.
Before my ordination to the Priesthood, I was given permission by the Bishop to go on a long monastic retreat. I went for all of Lent in 1977 to Mount Saviour Monastery near Elmira in Upstate New York. After that blessed Lent and Holy Week, I got into my car to drive back home. As I drove off the monastery property, I turned on the radio. You have to understand that I had not listened to the radio or watched TV or even saw a newspaper during my long retreat! Suddenly the noise and commotion on the radio invaded the quiet space of the car with its restlessness, its self-preoccupation, its commercial intent, its anguished neediness. It was at that moment that I realized the treasure I had during that retreat: the beauty of silence.
I am using this before-and-after experience to help communicate the toxic environment that our continual quest for noise and distraction engenders.
Today, there is almost a pathological fear of silence. I remember a teacher I had in the seminary who kept his TV on day and night. There was never any silence in his rooms!
Parenthetically, another important sister-aspect of the spiritual life, solitude, is also under attack by the continual and omnipresent smartphone that keeps each person ‘connected’ with virtual reality instead of the ‘real’ reality of life that includes being alone with God! Try taking a smartphone away from someone and you will discover how truly ‘hooked’ they are!
But returning to the subject of this letter: have you ever noticed that there is never silence in ordinary life? Forget the hum and crash of traffic and sanitation trucks outside. Even when we are in a supermarket there is music; at the dentist, music; at the department store, music. It almost seems there is an unholy conspiracy against silence and just being! It is doubly tragic since it not only keeps us from God who is not a virtual reality, but it anesthetizes us from patient concentration, which is necessary for everything from study to the appreciation of art. (Have you ever noticed how fast the editing has become for commercials and even feature films? It is a barrage of images meant to prevent you from thinking whether or not you need this thing that they are selling or displaying! Just buy it!)
This gathering horror and avoidance of solitude and silence is disastrous for our prayer life, which is nurtured by these two healing realities. Why the fear? Perhaps when we are not distracted, many things deep in our psyche are let loose: unresolved interpersonal conflicts, phobias, painful memories and regrets, etc. In Zen Buddhism, they called this ‘sanyo’. When a Buddhist sits in meditation (zazen), frightening things emerge into consciousness. These are the repressed phantoms of unresolved fears and hurts that take almost a visual form.
But the answer is not to flee into noise and false connections!
One must stand fast in the silence to be able to face these phantoms of dread and to deal with them with the grace of God and the counsel of friends and advisors. While these things may at times come up, the majority of the time we have a calm and stillness that give peace, order and even health of body and spirit.
It is important to use our free will to embrace this silence and to flee the dictatorship of noise even when it promises what it cannot deliver.