The freedom of silence



It’s not uncommon in parish ministry to hear people express a desire for God to speak to them more clearly in prayer. At times, people may even doubt the value of prayer or be tempted to feel that it’s a waste of time. I think that this is often the result of misconceptions and false expectations about prayer. We can often be secretly—or not so secretly—yearning for something extraordinary to occur in prayer. These things do occur, but God normally speaks to us in the ordinary.

Sacred Scripture provides us with some wonderful examples in this regard. In the first book of Kings, Elijah didn’t find God in “a strong and violent wind” or “an earthquake” or “in the fire,” but in “a light silent sound.” It was only then that Elijah “wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave” (1 Kings 19:13). Only then did the voice of the Lord come to him.

Another version of the Bible translates “a light silent sound” as “a still small voice.” If we were to ardently seek this “still small voice,” it could potentially transform our entire prayer life. However, if our lives are filled with too much noise, how do we expect to hear the “still small voice” of the Lord?

In book 1, chapter 11, of “The Ascent of Mount Carmel,” St. John of the Cross tells us of a bird who is tied and cannot fly away. He says that it “makes little difference whether a bird is tied by a thin thread or by a cord,” because as long as the bird is held bound—even if by a tiny thread—it’s “impeded from flying as long as it does not break the thread.” Granted, he realizes that the thin thread is easier to break than the cord, but his point is that “no matter how easily this may be done, the bird will not fly away without first doing so.”

Personally, I like to think of all the unnecessary noises and distractions in our lives as threads that hold us back from being able to hear God’s voice in our lives. St. Matthew tells us that “the eye is the lamp of the body” (Matthew 6:22), and the more we fill up our souls with unnecessary things, or—even worse—bad things, the more we are tied down. Likewise, the more we avoid constant bombardment by news, social media, television, radio, texts, etc., the more strings we sever, and the freer we become. Please don’t get me wrong. I am not referring to good or necessary things. By all means, I am sure that we could all benefit from filling ourselves more often with such things as Sacred Scripture or quality conversations with friends and loved ones.

In the Blessed Virgin Mary, we find another great example of someone who took the time to silently ponder God’s activity in the midst of her daily life—not merely in the extraordinary event of Gabriel’s appearance. After the shepherds came to see the infant Jesus, St. Luke tells us that Mary “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). A little later on in the same chapter, when the Holy Family returns to Nazareth after having found Jesus—now 12 years old—in the Temple, St. Luke repeats almost the exact same words. He says, “His mother kept all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51). It’s as if he were really trying to emphasize that this ought to be the same attitude we should adopt in seeking to discover God’s presence in our lives.

The silence that allows us to discover the “still small voice” of God is never silence for the sake of silence. As Archbishop Luis Martinez writes in “When God is Silent,” it is the type of silence that “quiets all creatures so that God may speak.” By disconnecting ourselves from outside noises, silence “puts us in intimate contact with God” in order that our entire life may become a prayer.