Holy Silence, the Secret of the Saints
Holy Silence, the right Partner for Progress
Silence is the fifth of the seven character traits in the Work of the Holy Angels, it allies itself closely with the other six traits. Silence is certainly not a finality in itself: we do not practice silence for silence’s sake, but in view of some other good. Thus, silence is an ancillary virtue like humility (2).
A loquacious humility were no humility, it would not be inconspicuous, it would not be prompt and ready to serve. Clearly, humility needs to be imbued with a spirit of silence. Silence serves truth and charity (4). Not every truth is to be blurted out, justice and charity must dictate our speech. Charity is often silent out of compassion and consideration.
Holy silence adds simplicity and nobility to obedience (3); by silence we learn to carry out a task according to the original intention of our superiors, without ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’, without adding the ‘signature’ of our own likes and dislikes.
Fidelity (1) would quickly lose its strength if it were not assisted by interior silence. In times of trial, self-dialogue wages a wearying battle against fidelity, chipping away at our perseverance. Just as fidelity is lost in a few falls, even so it is with silence.
Silence can only thrive in communion with temperance (6), for nothing is so difficult to restrain as the tongue. "If any one does not offend in word, he is a perfect man. … The tongue is a small member, but it boasts mightily!" (Jas 3,2.5). Now, self-restraint is the formal mark of temperance and all her children.
Finally, if we wish to learn holy silence, we do well to turn to and imitate the Blessed Virgin Mary (7), who kept all things in her heart, to ponder them. By her silence Mary was intimately associated with the holy Angels. How dear silence should be to us, for there can be no habitual communion with the holy Angels in a soul that does not love and practice silence. "Be on guard against many words," explains St. Dorotheus, "for these extinguish completely the holy and most reasonable thoughts as well as the inspirations coming from heaven", which the holy Angels wish to transmit to us. A soul – or even an entire community – which loses its love for silence, loses sight of its eternal goal.
Importance of Silence
"If you wish to make great progress in virtue, if you wish to arrive at perfection, then observe [holy] silence" (Rodriguez, ibid., II,6). How incredibly important silence is! Innumerable saints attest to this by the witness of their lives. Notwithstanding, there is something in us that makes us wish it really wasn’t true, or at least, that silence were really not so indispensable. Silence, you see, has very much the specter of death about it (don’t people speak of ‘dead silence’?), and what we want is life! Ah, the saints tell us, silence is like the very salt of life, both conserving it and giving it genuine savor. His life is certainly insipid, who does not know how to keep silence.
The Origin of Noise
In Paradise there was, in the moral sense of the term, no noise, for all things contributed together to the glorification of God and the edification of man. Created in grace, all man’s faculties were ordered to the good, to God, in a wonderful symphony of love. Man loved God intensely and supremely by nature and even more by the divine gift of friendship. The infused virtues exercised sweet dominion within human nature, for man had also received the preternatural gift of integrity, whereby all the lower faculties of body and soul were wholly docile to his intellect and will. In his own being man was a veritable paradise. Peace and harmony reigned there, the dialogue of love was framed in holy silence, for there was nothing inordinate in Adam and Eve’s own nature, in their contact with God, with one another, or with creation about them.
But then the ‘diabolos’, the effecter of chaos, the father of lies, sowed falsehood in the mind of Eve; she begot the sin of rebellion and induced Adam into the same chaos. Disorder, dissonance (‘noise’), discordance are the afterbirth of Original Sin. Though not destroyed, our nature was damaged by Original Sin. Although the natural inclination and longing for God remain, the Sirens of self-love seek vigorously to install themselves upon the throne in our heart. While continuing to seek ‘good things’ all the faculties clamor in a disordered way, wanting only their own pleasures.
Noise dissipates and fatigues the soul; in silence we gather our forces. Silence restores order and brings peace, which St. Augustine defines as "the tranquility of order". Without discipline of holy silence Christ cannot reign as King in our heart!
Silence begins with Faith, blossoms in Love
"Numquam minus soli quam soli!" – "Never less alone, than when alone!" – exclaimed St. Bernard. Lovers second his sentiments, which they render with this modern quip: "Two’s plenty, three’s a crowd!" Lovers want to be alone, they want to dedicate themselves exclusively to one another.
Since the ‘beloved’ of the devout soul is the Divine Bridegroom dwelling within, should it not follow that this soul too delights to be alone and free to converse interiorly with the beloved. But this love is a mystery of faith. Hence, holy silence presuppose faith, which is its fertile ground.
In her Memoirs, Sr. Lucy of Fátima sketches well this reflective trait of Bl. Francisco: "Francisco was a boy of few words. Whenever he prayed or offered sacrifices, he preferred to go apart and hide, even from Jacinta and myself. Quite often, we surprised him hidden behind a wall or a clump of blackberry bushes, whither he had ingeniously slipped away to kneel and pray, or ‘think’ as he said, ‘of Our Lord…’ I asked him: ‘Francisco, why don’t you tell me to pray with you, and Jacinta too?’ ‘I prefer praying by myself,’ he answered, ‘so that I can think and console our Lord,…’
"Sometimes, on our way to school, as soon as we reached Fátima, he would say to me: ‘Listen! You go to school, and I’ll stay here in the church, close to the Hidden Jesus. It’s not worth my while learning to read, as I’ll be going to heaven very soon [the Blessed Mother had promised him as much!]. On your way home, come here and call me.’ … Francisco went [to kneel before the tabernacle]. … and that was where I found him on my return [from school, hours later.]" (Chapter: Francisco, Lover of Solitude and Prayer).
The Realms of Silence
We have four faculties in our soul where virtues take up their residence and work: prudence in the mind, justice in the will, fortitude in the irascible (aggressive) appetite and temperance in the concupiscible (pleasure) appetite. These four are called the cardinal virtues, because the moral live hinges upon them; all the other virtues are grouped around them (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1805).
On the supernatural level, however, charity is the inner form of all virtues, for it orders them to the final goal, God, as St. Paul exclaims: "If I have all prophesy and know all mysteries, … if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, … if I distributed all my goods to feed the poor, and if I deliver my body up to be burned, but have not charity, … I am nothing, … it profits me nothing" (1 Cor 13, 2a-3a.2b-3b).
Now we wish to take a look at the cardinal virtues and see one or other of the contributions that silence offers. We can give but an anecdotal sketch of the areas in which silence plays a significant role.
Silence and Prudence
Prudence is the virtue by which we find and deploy the reasonable means in the pursuit of the right end. "A man of understanding sets his face toward wisdom, but the eyes of a fool are on the ends of the earth" (Prov 17,24). In its relation to the end, prudence is associated with wisdom, by which we savor the supreme goodness of God, so as to judge the value of all things, as it were, from on high. In this context Cardinal Journet writes: "When anyone is in the state of grace, then there is a dialogue, conversation of friend with friend. So we see that the dissipation of mind which so prevails in the world today is a form of madness. We need times of silence: 'Be silent, and see that I am thy God in thy heart.' In times of difficulty or sadness, in times of suffering, if you frequently call to mind that God is in you to give you His love, you will not be alone, you will find the Guest within you, and He will answer you" (The Meaning of Grace).
Means, of course, are not to be desired for their own sake, but only insofar as they help us to the goal. Among all the means silence enjoys a place of honor. In the Cell of Knowledge we hear this exhortation from Our Lord: "If you wear the habergeon or the hair, fasting bread and water, and if you were to say every day a thousand Pater Nosters, you should not please Me so well as you do when you are in silence, and suffer [allow] Me to speak in your soul" (anonymous,14th C. England).
Writing on recollection, Bl. Titus Brandsma, a Carmelite, observed: "A … point emphasized by the Rule is silence and recollection as a necessary condition for a life of prayer. Active recollection, by which we put ourselves and keep ourselves in the presence of God, has always been regarded as the essential preparation for communion with God in the mystical life. Just as the Prophet did not hear the voice of God in the storm, but in the gentle breeze, so the heart of the spiritual man must not be shaken by the storm but must listen for God's voice in the silence of its own interior. The constitutions of the Order have always stressed this. To recover recollection of spirit has ever been the first step of all reform" (Carmelite Historical Sketches, Lect. 2: The Hermits of Carmel).
A retreat master was accustomed to ask the retreatants if they had difficulties with meditation. From the show of hands and nods, it was evident that they did. Then he would ask if many also had difficulties with distractions. Yes, this too, is seemingly a universal affliction. St. Aloysius’ grace of recollection is not given to everyone. At the end of his novitiate, asked if he had had difficulty with distractions, he responded: "All the distractions of the entire year would not amount to the space of a single Hail Mary!"
Playfully, the retreat master would then point out to the group: "You say that you have difficulty with meditation but facility with distractions. Don’t you realize that distractions are just ever so many mini-meditations?" "Where your treasure is, there too shall your heart be!" (Mt 6:21). Distractions are a loss of silence that comes primarily from a lack of poverty and detachment. Distractions are mostly about the things we want to possess, to enjoy, or whose possession we sense is threatened.
Silence and Justice
The most common fault against justice, gossip, could be overcome by discrete silence. How true are the poet’s words: The only instrument that gets sharper with use is the tongue! "The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence. ... With his mouth the godless man would destroy his neighbor" (Prov 10:11; 11:9). The desert father Hyoperrechios accordingly observed: "It’s better to eat meat and to drink wine than to devour one's brother in a feast of slanderous speech" (Apophthegmata, nr. 921).
St. Francis de Sales comments: "From rash judgments proceed mistrust, contempt for others, pride, and self-sufficiency, and numberless other pernicious results, among which stands forth prominently the sin of slander, which is a veritable pest of society. Oh, wherefore can I not take a live coal from God's Altar, and touch the lips of men, so that their iniquity may be taken away and their sin purged, even as the Seraphim purged the lips of Isaiah (6:2ff). He who could purge the world of slander would cleanse it from a great part of its sinfulness!
He who unjustly takes away his neighbor's good name is guilty of sin, and is bound to make reparation, according to the nature of his evil speaking; since no man can enter into Heaven cumbered with stolen goods, and of all worldly possessions the most precious is a good name. Slander is a kind of murder. … St. Bernard says, the devil has possession both of the slanderer and of those who listen to him, of the tongue of the one, the ear of the other" (Devout Life, III, ch. XXIX).
By the same token, justice, at times, may demand that we speak out; here silence would be false and seven sinful: "If you would be justified in condemning a neighbor's sin, you must be sure that it is needful either for his good or that of others to do so. For instance, if light, unseemly conduct is spoken of before young people in a way calculated to injure their purity, and you pass it over, or excuse it, they may be led to think lightly of evil, and to imitate it; and therefore you are bound to condemn all such things freely and at once, unless it is obvious that by reserving your charitable work of reprehension to a future time, you can do it more profitably" (ibid).
Silence and Fortitude
Fortitude strengthens us in the face of death; in daily life it makes its presence felt through its children: patience, meekness, constancy, etc. The practice of interior silence in the face of our neighbor’s character faults (perhaps only apparent) challenges our patience and the constancy of love. Outward silence is not sufficient for virtue; we must also attain to a silence of heart. Patience and meekness cannot exist in separation from holy silence. "Consider," says St. Catherine, "that Divine Charity is so closely joined in the soul with patience, that neither can leave without the other" (Dialogues, Divine Providence). The desert father Hyperrechios exclaimed categorically: "He who does not bridle his tongue at the moment of anger will not overcome the other passions either" (Apophtegmata, nr. 921). The desert father Poemen observed: "There is an individual who seems to practice silence, but his heart condemns others. In reality, such a person is talking constantly" (ibid., nr.601). In the same vein he counseled: "The victory over everything that afflicts you is holy silence" (ibid., nr. 611). For holy silence includes peace of heart.
Silence and Temperance
How naturally we are inclined to pleasure, particularly to those of the palate. Greater than our appetite for food and drink is pleasure in words. For the belly – even of the fool is quickly satiated – but his mouth never grows tired of words. "When words are many, transgression is not lacking, … the mouths of fools feed on folly" (Prov 10:19; 15:14).
The desert father Sisoes confessed: "Behold, now it’s been thirty years that I have no longer prayed to God because of a [certain] sin; but for this I pray: ‘Lord Jesus, protect me against my tongue – and nevertheless, I still fall daily on account of it and sin’" (Apophthegmata, nr. 808).
Whereas the desert fathers did well to practice near total silence in their isolated hermitages, this hardly serves as a model for us in our family or community situations. St. Francis de Sales counsels the right measure in conversation: "The silence, so much commended by wise men of old, does not refer so much to a literal use of few words, as to not using many useless words. On this score, we must look less to the quantity than the quality, and, as it seems to me, our aim should be to avoid both extremes. An excessive reserve and stiffness, which stands aloof from familiar friendly conversation, is untrusting, and implies a certain sort of contemptuous pride; while an incessant chatter and babble, leaving no opportunity for others to put in their word, is frivolous and troublesome" (loc. cit., ch. XXX).
Insatiable is the appetite for news! Coheleth was certainly speaking of curiosity when he affirmed: "All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full. … the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing" (Ecc 1,7.8b). The soul that gorges itself on newspapers, magazines, radio and television can never come to rest. To this list computer games and surfing must be added. Recent studies show that American youths, for instance, now spend more time before the computer screen and before the television. Formerly, they averaged several hours of TV a day.
False silence out of shame
In the area of temperance one also meets a false kind of silence, used to curtain one’s sense of shame. St. Francis advises: "The best remedy against temptations whether great or small, is to open our hearts and make known our suggestions, feelings and affections to our spiritual director. Remember that silence is the first condition the devil makes with a person whom he wishes to seduce like those who wish to lead astray women or young girls. First of all, they forbid them to communicate the evil proposals to their fathers or husbands. On the contrary, God through His inspirations requires above all that we should make them known to our superiors and spiritual directors" (loc.cit., IV, ch. VII).
A principal danger in modern society comes from music which is both ubiquitous and mostly bad. Here a grave misconception reigns in the minds of those who think that the problem is principally one of bad lyrics. Granted the lyrics are often terrible. Ironically, though, this can constitute but a small part of the problem, since the music is generally so loud one cannot hear the words. No, the primary problem has to do with the very kind of music people are listening to; it is truly seductive. Here is the reason why:
It pertains to the nature of all art to imitate nature. Thus, we recognize good art in those works which tastefully reproduce well the original of nature. In the ordered, clear rendering we find art both beautiful and pleasing. This is particularly evident in the case of painting and sculpture.
If people take delight in distorted art, this is a sign of moral degradation. Unconsciously, you see, they perceive themselves as ugly (in consequence of their sins) and find this brokenness depicted ‘well’ in art. In this sense much of modern art is a true self-revelation (cf. Pope John Paul II, Letter to Artists, 2), for it does, in fact, reproduce the decrepitude it finds in its model, the dissolute generation of today. However, the artist is not just a camera, but he has a mission in society: he should present beauty, which is the visible form of the good (cf. ibid., 3), and so spiritually uplift the viewer.
The case with music is quite distinct and unique. Music does not imitate some extrinsic reality, but rather music imitates the interior passions (emotions) of the soul. Music excites emotions. You do not have to tell a child, "This is happy music" or "This is sad music!" In songs, the medium, that is, the music itself, is the essential message, not the words, and the emotions of our soul are the strings upon which this message is played.
Today’s forms of music aim largely at stimulating sensuality, at provoking a passionate state of soul, whereby the passions are given more and more dominion over reason and will. Whoever understands this, sees immediately the absurdity of speaking of Christian Rock: Behind pious lyrics, the music is constantly and pursuasively caressing the sensual chords of the heart.
Silence is the only effective remedy to sensual, inordinate music: refuse to listen to it! Even good music is to be taken in moderation. Best of all is sacred chant, where the music truly accompanies the spiritual content of the text, such that we not only intellectually believe and adhere to God, but believe in Him more firmly and love Him more intensely with our heart, as well. Sacred music uses the emotions and orders them harmoniously in the life of soul under the worthy direction of intellect and will. In this well-ordered integrity, man is more fit to morally meet the challenge of life. Moreover, he will be more receptive to beauty and joy in life and know how to order all things to the supreme goal.
Bl. Titus affirmed, "To recover recollection of spirit has ever been the first step of all reform." Less than to a few particular sins, the general state of dissipation and dissolution of modern Christianity may be traced back to the loss of silence, which is concomitant with the spirit of worldliness, in which most other sins take their roots. The choices that led to this catastrophic state were not in themselves grievous sins, but the cumulative effect of defects in prudence, whereby charity grew cold, whereby the means ceased to be used as means and came to be sought as the gratifying end of peoples’ lives.
Those who wish to cultivate a deep friendship with the holy Angels must needs practice silence. In the beginning this is hard, because so much, it seems, is lost. In the end, there is joy, because silence disposes us for the authentic gifts that come to us through Divine love.