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Sacred Silence

Thursday, January 9th, 2020

Action and Contemplation: Part One

Sacred Silence
Thursday, January 9, 2020

Most of us who live in a capitalist culture, where everything is about competing and comparing, will find contemplation extremely counterintuitive. How do we grasp something as empty, as harmless, as seemingly fruitless as the practice of silence? Only when we know that it also offers a “peace beyond understanding” (Philippians 4:7) and a “joy that no one can take from you” (John 16:22).

Silence needs to be understood in a larger way than simply a lack of audible noise. Whenever emptiness—what seems like empty space or absence of sound—becomes its own kind of fullness with its own kind of sweet voice, we have just experienced sacred silence.

When religious folks limit their focus in prayer to external technique and formula, the soul remains largely untouched and unchanged. Too much emphasis on what I call “social prayer” or wordy prayer feeds our egos and gives us far too much to argue about. That is surely why Jesus emphasized quiet prayer in one’s own “inner room” and warned us not to “babble on as the pagans do” (Matthew 6:5-7). Oh, the years we Catholics and others have wasted arguing about liturgy in a juridical way! For me, law and liturgy are two different realms. How can we truly pray when we are preoccupied with formula and perfection of technique?

If we can see silence as the ground of all words and the birth of all words, then when we speak, our words will be calmer and well-chosen. Our thoughts will be non-judgmental. Our actions will have greater integrity and impact.

When we recognize something as beautiful, that knowledge partly emerges from the silence around it. It may be why we are quiet in art galleries and symphony halls. If something is not surrounded by the vastness of silence and space, it is hard to appreciate it as singular and beautiful. If it is all mixed in with everything else, then its particularity does not stand out.

As one author I read years ago said, silence is the net below the tightrope walker. [1] We are walking, trying to find the right words to explain our experience and the right actions to match our values. Silence is that safety net that allows us to fall; it admits, as poets often do, that no words or deeds will ever be perfectly right or sufficient. So the poet keeps trying, for which we are grateful! The great spaciousness and safety net beneath a tightrope walker is silence; it offers freedom from self-preoccupation and the fear of making a mistake. A regular practice of contemplation helps us trust that silence will uphold us, receive our mistakes, and give us the courage to learn and grow.

[1] Max Picard, The World of Silence, trans. Stanley Godman (H. Regnery: 1964, ©1952), 22.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation (Franciscan Media: 2014), 7-9.

Image credit: The Angelus (detail), Jean-François Millet, 1857–1859, Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: We tend to presume that one must create silent spaces for contemplation. It is as if we have drawn the spiritual veil around contemplative activity, seeking to distance prayerful and reflective practices from the noise of the world. —Barbara Holmes
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