Hic Taceat Omnis Lingua
“Here let every tongue be silent.”
DISCLAIMER: You are about to read words that are written about silence! This may seem counterintuitive and, indeed, a fruitless endeavor. Yet, should one believe that all things are possible with God, one may be able hear Him speaking loud and clear in the silence. But proceed with caution!
How much can one say about silence? I’ve been trying for days now to sit down and write about it, but it keeps rearing up right up in front of me like this big brick wall of writer’s block. I put my hands on the keyboard and I even start writing something, and I’ve probably already written pages worth of reflections, but I just can’t seem to get it right. It feels like my experience during this last week, when we were on silent retreat here at St. John’s, is fighting description, defying me to speak about something that cannot be put into words. Sometimes, that’s just the experience we have of Christ when we meet him in the silence, because sometimes he doesn’t want to be limited to what we can say about him or what we can post about him on our Facebooks. Even our daily prayers, memorized or spontaneous, simply aren’t enough when encountered by the silence. But they are good: He wants us to start somewhere, because the silence can be very hard to deal with.
I felt almost like I was cheating during this silent retreat because I wrote pages and pages of reflections and prayers in my journal during those five days. I figured that the silence was kind of a funny thing for me during that time. It’s as if I was laughing about things, crying about things, and just expressing myself as clearly as ever by letting everything flow out onto the pages of my journal. Writing has become one of the best ways that I pray and also that I process my prayer: what I am really feeling, how honest I am with myself, and I can look back at it all later on. There is something abiding in writing down our hopes, fears, and prayers because we commit them to the silence, but they also remain there for us to read later, to reflect on, and to ultimately be challenged by.
By the end of the retreat my words placed on paper simply weren’t enough for me, though. It’s as if the retreat went on for about 18 hours too long for me. As much as I thought that I would prefer to remain in silence, to not be bothered in my thoughts and prayers, to enjoy the lack of distractions and the personal time for another day or two, I was yearning for someone to share my experiences with. Apparently I got to the point where I was visibly exhausted and upset. I was having a hard time having fun at that point and one of the other seminarians even joked with me, telling me not to look like I was enjoying myself so much. So the last day of the retreat was a tremendous test for me, one that I could only recognize and be honest about and be tremendously thankful for once the silence ended.
We were lucky, though, to be allowed about an hour a day to meet with our Casitas groups (our small support/faith sharing groups) and so vent or express what’s been happening to us (and for us) in the silence. Otherwise, I would have just imploded in the quiet, receiving grace upon grace, challenge upon challenge, yet not having anyone to share them with. But I learned that an hour a day isn’t enough for me to communicate with others. We’re human persons, and like it or not sometimes (even though it may seem like we’re the center of the universe because we can only know our own thoughts and purposes for doing things), we need to communicate, we need to support and be supported, and we need to share what’s going on in our heads. And as persons, loved by our God who has made us and knows us more intimately than we may think we know ourselves, we need to pray together, we need to love God together, and we need to reassure each other that we are loved by God. Otherwise, we will forget that we are persons, that we are human, and that we are great because our God is great.
I thank God for the silence, as challenging as it was by the end. And so I learned something about silence, especially God’s silence. We all have those prayer experiences where God just seems distant, like He’s ignoring us, like He simply doesn’t care. But I’ve grown convinced that God is a whole lot louder than I’ve ever been aware of before. It’s not about whether or not He can make himself known to us through nature, through art and music, through others, through scripture, through prayer, and in our very selves. It’s really about whether we can quiet ourselves enough to see that He is always and everywhere revealing Himself to us. It’s not up to God to get louder because He has been making Himself known to us through everything we are and do and see; it’s up to us to grow quieter and to know that He is God.
It’s not easy, and sometimes it’s downright uncomfortable, but all it takes is leaving the radio off when in we jump in the car to drive somewhere, or turning off the TV and picking up a book, or just sitting with someone we know and love, not saying a word, letting the silence speak for itself. Sometimes it will seem way to loud, other times it can make clearer to us something we don’t want to admit about ourselves. Ultimately, silence is not easy, but it is necessary. So don’t think silence is for the faint of heart, or that only the strong and courageous can come out on the other side. It will change the way all of us, the weak and the strong, see the world, if only we allow a few more moments of quiet into our days. Our God is not a quiet a God. He is loud and He wants us to know that. God is what makes the silence so deafening.
And now that I’ve written all these words about silence, I think the only way we can really understand it is when the words end and we stop trying to speak about what cannot be spoken about.