Greetings and many thanks to all of those who prayed for me this past week while I was on retreat. It was a most blessed and grace filled eight days of silence, spending time with the Lord Jesus in prayer. Thank you.
I thought that in light of the retreat I would give some of my own thoughts on silence and its role in the spiritual life. Silence in its technical understanding is a disposition in faith whereby the believer allows himself to be quieted on all levels of his being so as to place himself in a state of active receptivity towards the abundant graces of Lord. This involves not only physical quiet, but also inner quiet. One can remove all outward sources of sound and distraction and cease to communicate with others, yet not achieve a state of silence. Likewise, one can be listening to an iPod, chanting the liturgy of the hours, or speaking out loud and still remain in a state of silence. What, then, is silence?
Breaking up the parts of the definition I provided, silence is first a “disposition in faith.” By a disposition of faith, I mean a posture that we take before the Lord with the faith that He will indeed speak to us. There is no reason, or motivation for placing oneself in such a disposition of silence if one does not believe that there is anything to receive or hear from the Lord. In this way, faith—a gift from the Lord—is a prerequisite to silence. Furthermore, our ability to enter into such a posture because of faith is itself a gift. Therefore, our entering into silence is in many ways an examination, an inquiry into this initial gift of faith given to us in baptism, sealed in confirmation, and renewed through confession and the Eucharist.
Silence requires one’s entire being to be quieted or at a state of rest. As presented to us here at IPF, there are three levels to our being. The first is a surface level made up of thoughts, feelings, and desires that are weak and fleeting. An example of such might be the initial happiness brought on by a familiar song playing in the elevator. We notice that the quiet droning piano music is actually a cover of one our favorite pop songs, and we smile. Yet, as soon as we leave the feeling passes and we hardly remember the event.
The second level is the level of our Psyche. This level includes thoughts, feelings, and desires centered around certain memories, family ties, cultures, and even ethnicities. My favorite example of this is that good old Irish melancholy that arises in the hearts of so many with the slightest whisperings of home and family. Another example is the enduring love for everything football that lives in the hearts of all true Texans. These thoughts, feelings, and desires endure and can remain with us, even without paying attention to them. Indeed, they can often change and color the entire complexion of a day. Think of the sorrow or joy that ensues a loss or win by a favorite sports team. It is important to note that this in no way endorses a pseudo-Freudian understanding of the sub-conscious. This level merely tries to take into account the material conditions that helped to form who we are.
The third level is the level of our spirit. These are our deepest thoughts, feelings, and desires such as our desire to do God’s will, the joy that may come from knowing God’s love for us, or the mystical thoughts of contemplating God’s attributes. In this level, God speaks to us in a very real way, revealing Himself through memory and imagination. But we must be careful, for God is not the only one who speaks at this level. Our own broken and fallen human spirit and the influence of the evil one can also be felt at this level. Just as our deepest desires for God reside here, so to our deepest inclinations towards sin also take root here.
It is also important to note that these three levels are intricately related. Although we can experience happiness (consolation) and sadness (desolation) at each level independently of the others, often times they do coincide. For example, the joys experienced in friendship can lead us to understand our own deeper desire for friendship with God and the gratitude for such a gift of fraternity. Also, the high gained at party might smooth over and leave us ignorant of a deeper sadness or confusion about who we are.
Underneath all of this, is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It is the presence of the Holy Spirit, the divine life of the Trinity within our very hearts that makes it possible for us to hear God’s voice. This is the exploration of that original gift of faith I spoke of earlier.
In silence, we try to place ourselves in an environment where we will be quieted in each of these three levels. We remove surface level distractions such as music, TV, conversation, etc…in hopes that the second level of our being might be freed from outside influences. It is easy to see how the loss of a favorite sports team could create an enduring state of unrest that is not conducive to prayer. By disengaging many of the outside triggers for these first two levels, we allow ourselves to begin to listen and to engage that third level where God is constantly working in us through that indwelling of His Spirit. Through silence, we hope to allow God to use these three levels, indeed order each of them to the workings of His Spirit within us.
It is here that we reach the third part of my definition where we place ourselves in an “active state of receptivity for the reception of graces.” By quieting or allowing ourselves to be quieted in these three levels, we allow God to reveal Himself to us in the deepest parts of our being, speaking to us through our most fundamental thoughts, feelings, and desires. It is only here in the silence of our hearts that the Lord can teach us wisdom (Ps. 51).
I will speak in greater detail about what one is does during such a time of silence in another blog posting. Thus, to be continued…