Silence is an invitation to receive a gift. Our part is to receive, respond, and then collaborate more fully with the work of the Holy Spirit. By learning to appreciate silence, we make the time and space needed to allow our desire for God to grow. As our desire for God grows, we in turn, respond more readily to his next invitation to silence.
An Ecosystem for Active Reflection
God doesn’t impose silence on us, nor does he coerce it from us; instead he waits in silence for us to turn toward him. When we attempt to force silence on ourselves or others as a penance or punishment, or out of our own need for control, we risk associating silence with emptiness or privation. Granted, there is a self-emptying which accompanies our entry into silence, but privation is not silence’s end. The sole purpose of a self-emptying silence is to make room for God’s fullness. Consider the full active silence that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI encourages: “In silence, we are better able to listen to and understand ourselves; ideas come to birth and acquire depth... Deeper reflection helps us to discover the links between events that at first sight seem unconnected... For this to happen, it is necessary to develop an appropriate environment, a kind of ‘ecosystem’ that maintains a just equilibrium between silence and words, images and sounds.” Can we imagine how we might bring “a just equilibrium between silence and words, images and sounds” to a catechetical session? In our world, with its unrelenting deluge of words, images, and sounds, we find it challenging to truly see one person and to fully listen to one voice at a time. Yet, it is precisely this focused attention that best communicates Christ’s love. Such intentional seeing and listening is not possible without interior silence.
Silence and the Encounter with God
Holy Mother Church nurtures her children’s desire for God by leading us into periods of silence within the sacred liturgy. In the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), the Church gives us clues regarding appropriate responses that help us to actively cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit during the different periods of silence observed at Mass:
Sacred silence also, as part of the celebration, is to be observed at the designated times. Its purpose, however, depends on the time it occurs in each part of the celebration. Thus within the Act of Penitence and again after the invitation to pray, all recollect themselves; but at the conclusion of a reading or the homily, all meditate briefly on what they have heard; then after Communion, they praise and pray to God in their hearts.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in one of only two references listed in the index under “silence,” associates it with contemplative prayer: “Contemplative prayer is silence, the ‘symbol of the world to come’ or ‘silent love.’ . . . In this silence, unbearable to the ‘outer’ man, the Father speaks to us his incarnate Word, who suffered, died, and rose; in this silence the Spirit of adoption enables us to share in the prayer of Jesus.” In the world to come, “God will be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). We will at last share fully in the prayer of Jesus, “that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (Jn 17:21). The silent love of contemplative prayer is our share in divine life, which is union and communion with the Holy Trinity. In the other reference the Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of silence in connection with adoration. “Adoration is . . . respectful silence in the presence of the ‘ever greater’ God.” In adoration, the fundamental relationship between God and man is manifested, and we perceive that God is eternal while we are fleeting and that God is great while we are small. In silent adoration, therefore, we begin to learn reality. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, speaking during a visit with Carthusian monks in 2011, made similar connections: “By withdrawing into silence and solitude, human beings, so to speak, “expose” themselves to reality in their nakedness . . . in order to experience instead Fullness, the presence of God, of the most real Reality that exists and that lies beyond the tangible dimension.” Lay catechists may object that our lives do not allow for many periods of silence and solitude and ask, “What about us? How can we cultivate inner silence?” Blessed Teresa of Calcutta comes to our aid, showing us how to cultivate inner silence by choosing virtue over vice. Her plan for growth in inner silence is practical and involves our whole being.
To make possible true inner silence, practice:
Silence of the eyes, by seeking always the beauty and goodness of God everywhere, and closing them to the faults of others and to all that is sinful and disturbing to the soul.
Silence of the ears, by listening always to the voice of God and to the cry of the poor and the needy, and closing them to all other voices that come from fallen human nature, such as gossip, tale bearing, and uncharitable words.
Silence of the tongue, by praising God and speaking the life-giving Word of God that is the truth, that enlightens and inspires, brings peace, hope, and joy; and by refraining from self-defense and every word that causes darkness, turmoil, pain, and death.
Silence of the mind, by opening it to the truth and knowledge of God in prayer and contemplation, like Mary who pondered the marvels of the Lord in her heart, and by closing it to all untruths, distractions, destructive thoughts, rash judgments, false suspicions of others, vengeful thoughts, and desires.
Silence of the heart, by loving God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength; loving one another as God loves; and avoiding all selfishness, hatred, envy, jealousy, and greed.
The best catechists seem to naturally lead others into silence. They allow time to meditate on Scripture, to gaze silently at a work of art, or to listen to inspirational music. They ask very simple questions like, “What do you see?” or “What do you hear?” They don’t hurry past the silence that often follows such questions, but honor the beauty of the truth and the dignity of the children before them. They give time and space for the Holy Spirit to connect beauty and truth and goodness in hearts and minds. These catechists embody a quiet confidence that the Holy Spirit is at work in silence. They live an inner silence; the fruit of years of obedience to the impulses of the Holy Spirit in their own hearts. They dare to lead others into silence, knowing that in the silence of the heart God speaks.
For Parents: Cultivating Silence with Very Young Children
The ability to enjoy silence can be cultivated beginning in the earliest years. Parents can help young children begin to appreciate silence as gift. Prayerful preparation and planning ahead are keys. Silence cannot be rushed. Very young children learn to silence themselves as the adults in their lives help them realize they are capable of doing so. Try arriving for Mass a few minutes early; not easy with a young family, but worth the effort. As parents approach the church building on Sunday morning with their toddler, they slow their pace; modeling purposeful prayerful footsteps, and speaking in a whisper. Once inside, they pause briefly to “listen” to the silence before signing themselves using holy water and helping their child do the same. The adult’s slow and deliberate actions help the child “take in” the sacredness of the time and place. (This assumes that others in the Church are maintaining silence. Families who attend a parish that is “noisy before Mass” might try an adoration chapel instead.) If words are needed at all, very few words whispered in the toddler’s ear are most effective: “Look, everyone is quiet,” or “God is here.” If the toddler yells out or makes noise, one might press a finger gently against the child’s lips. If that doesn’t work, a quick and silent exit is the quickest way to convince the child that noisy behavior is not appropriate for sacred space. Care must be taken, however, to ensure that noisy behavior in church isn’t rewarded with free play on the lawn. When a mother knows her child to be capable of the self-control necessary to keep silence, she can step back in with the child after a few seconds outside. A calm and patient, “Let’s try again,” is enough. An internet search will also yield helpful silence exercises for young children—like those used in Montessori schools. Parents who are tuned into the abilities of their own children may adapt such exercises for use with their children at home.
Some Questions for Children to Consider
- What is silence?
- Where do we find silence?
- Who waits for us in silence?
- How is silence with others different from silence alone?
- Can you name a time when you experienced the full silence of God’s love?
Silence in Catechetical Sessions with Children
At first, the thought of getting a group of young children to be silent may seem a daunting task; but given the appropriate guidance, children will surprise you. Recently I was entrusted with four groups of second grade Catholic school children at a short day retreat as they prepared for their First Reconciliation. Their teacher worried that, because of their recent behavior in the classroom, her students were incapable of taking the retreat day seriously. I explained to the first group of eight children that we would be walking in procession and that walking silently with prayer hands is a kind of prayer we make with our bodies. Pleased that they kept their prayer hands and silence for the entire distance of our procession (about 80 yards), when we arrived to the prepared room, I indicated in silence the seats they were to take and soon introduced the presentation. Next, I slowly made the sign of the cross, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” after which I paused for a brief period of silence. One of the boys assumed I had forgotten my prayers and began an “Our Father” but trailed off when nobody joined in. Addressing the whole group, I said, “Maybe you have never learned the prayer of silence; did you know silence can be a prayer?” I described silence as a beautiful gift that God the Father offers us, an invitation from Jesus to go deep into the quiet place where he lives with the Father and the Holy Spirit. There, where the Holy Trinity dwells, loving never stops. The Father loves his Son and Jesus loves his Father and the Holy Spirit goes out from them both to share God’s love with each of us and with the whole world. It is this beautiful gift of God’s love that Jesus wants us to discover when he invites us into silence. I asked, “Have any of you ever experienced this kind of peaceful loving silence?” A couple of children nodded, but one child rolled his eyes as he sighed. “Not me, it’s always noisy at my house!” When they agreed they would like to make a prayer of silence, we began again with the sign of the cross. The children surprised me with how quickly they quieted themselves. After about twenty seconds I noticed signs of restlessness and ended with a simple “Amen.” Those few seconds of silent prayer set the tone for all that followed. The children stayed attentive during the remainder of the thirty-minute session and offered thoughtful and appropriate insights. Children in the three remaining groups responded similarly. Remaining in silence as an individual can be deeply moving; sharing silence in a group can be powerful.
A Personal Experience of the Power of Silence
My family and I attended the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in September 2015. We visited local churches with relics of saints, listened to speakers, shared meals with our grandchildren, and met families of pilgrims from around the world. Each day brought many more people to the city for Pope Francis’ visit. As the time for the closing Mass drew near, I prepared myself for the noisy crowds, long walks, and happy chaos. Our jackets and backpacks marked our spot on a hill close enough to a jumbotron that we could see every action and hear every word of the Mass. When the Communion hymn ended, the hush that descended on the crowd was unlike any I have ever known. The silence teemed with life and love. In a crowd of hundreds of thousands of Catholics, I was drawn into a profoundly meditative and full silence. I recognized that we were united in Christ, and that his Presence with us was more real than anything we lacked. It didn’t bother me that I had failed to make it through the crowd in time to receive the Eucharist. During those few fleeting moments, I lived and loved in eternity and perceived the silence as a communion with Christ and his Church. I was not alone in experiencing the beauty of that silence; Matthew Gambino, reporting on the Papal Mass, described that same silence: “The sublime absence of sound, and the sight of Catholic Christians praying reverently after hearing the Word of God in the Scriptures and receiving the Eucharist, was for many in attendance a profound experience.” Meanwhile, Christopher Maag, covering the same event for a secular newspaper wrote, “A crowd this big is not one crowd but many, and they were never more united than when they were silent.” Holy Communion transcends time and indeed unites all the faithful, the living and the dead, along with the whole world with and in God. Nourished by daily prayer and breakfast with her deacon husband, Lani Bogart oversees all things catechetical in a mostly Hispanic urban parish in the Diocese of Phoenix. She delights in each encounter with her five children and seven grandchildren and enjoys knitting, calligraphy, and singing.