Circular Letter: June 2000

The Practice of Silence and Solitude

Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect (Rm 12:2).

I. Introduction

We need, especially in our day and age, to find a practical and workable response to St. Paul’s words, not only because doing the will of God is the key to holiness, but also, and above all, because our age is so evil.

Now to come up with a response to this challenge that St. Paul makes, we can begin with a story told about Abba Arsensius. He was a well-educated Roman Senator who also worked as a tutor to the princes of the Roman Emperor Theodosius. Eventually he became dissatisfied with his life in Rome, and so while still living in the palace he prayed to God in these words, “Lord, lead me in the way of salvation.” And then he heard a voice say to him: “Arsenius, flee from the world and you will be saved.” And so having sailed secretly to Alexandria, Egypt from Rome and after having begun living a life of solitude in the desert, he prayed again: “Lord, lead me in the way of salvation.” And again he heard a voice saying, “Arsenius, flee, be silent, pray always, for these are the sources of sinlessness.”

The words flee, be silent and pray, then, indicate to us the three ways by which we can prevent the sinful world from shaping us in its image. Now we have already discussed the importance and necessity of prayer in a previous conference. And so today, we want to concentrate on what it means to flee and be silent. In other words, we want to delve into the meaning and importance of solitude and silence and their role in the spiritual life.

II. Solitude

First of all solitude. For solitude is the goal of all who flee the world, and it is closely connected to the practice of silence. In fact, we can say that solitude is the indispensable condition for silence. In other words, without spending at least some time in solitude, we will not be able to grow in the practice of silence. For as the Imitation of Christ explains, “unless you like solitude it is not safe for you to appear in public” (Bk I, ch. 20).

We must, then, try to develop a love of solitude and a love of being alone with God. It is unfortunate therefore, that so many people see solitude only in negative terms, almost as a kind of punishment. For example, solitary confinement in prison is seen as one of the worst things that could happen to a person. But many priests who spent years in solitary confinement in communist prisons behind the iron curtain, later confessed that that was the richest and most blessed period of their spiritual lives.

Solitude, however, should be seen as a friend and as a companion and the precious means by which we can find God and listen to his voice. The Fathers of the Church, for this reason, have been loud in their praise of solitude. For example, St. Jerome writes: “O desert nourishing the flowers of Christ! O solitude which produces the firm rocks with which the city of the Great King is constructed. O barren waste, rejoicing in familiarity with God.” And St. Basil says of solitude: “A solitary life is the school in which heavenly doctrine is learned and a preparation for the practice of divine arts is given. It is a paradise of delights which emits the perfume of virtue. For there the roses of charity are enveloped in crimson flame and no sudden squalls are able to destroy the violets of humility. There the myrrh of perfect mortification diffuses itself and the incense of constant prayer hangs heavy on the air.” And if this is not enough praise, he adds: “O workshop of spiritual exercise, in which the human soul rebuilds in itself the image of its Creator and returns to its original purity.”

Finally, St. Bernard advises: “If you are preparing the ear of the spirit for the voice of God, a voice sweeter than honey and the honeycomb, then flee external cares; so that when your inner sense is disentangled and free, you may say with the prophet Samuel, ‘speak Lord, for your servant is listening’ (I Kings 3:10). For the voice of God does not speak amid the din and bustle of the world, nor is it heard in any public gathering. Rather secret counsel seeks to be heard also in secret. And so because of this, happiness will be given to us if we listen to God in solitude.”

We can see from all of this, then, that solitude should be seen in a positive and not a negative light. We should feel like the psalmist who wrote: “O that I had the wings of a dove, I would fly away and be at rest.” (Ps 54:7). However, making the effort to seek and find solitude may require a great sacrifice on our part. “For just as Abraham was commanded to leave his own country, so that he might deserve to behold and posses the Promised Land, so too,” as St. Bernard points out, “we must also in a sense flee from our friends, relatives, and neighbors, if we want to be saved in solitude.”

The importance, then, of finding at least some solitude, especially in our busy times, cannot be overestimated. For our salvation may well depend on our doing this. “For our society is not a community radiant with the love of Christ, but rather it is a dangerous network of domination and manipulation in which we can easily get entangled and lose our soul.” The basic question, therefore, we have to ask ourselves is, “whether we have become blind to our dangerous state and have lost the power and motivation to swim for our lives” to the shores of solitude.

And so because of this we should always keep the words of St. Augustine in mind, who once wrote: “if you love the world it will absorb you; for the world knows not how to support, but only how to devour its admirers.” For this reason we must, each of us, find our own mountain or desert where we can withdraw into the peace of silence and solitude. Christ himself told his apostles and disciples to pray in the solitude of their room and to “come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while” (Mk 6:31).

We must, then, make time in our daily routine for a period of time where we can withdraw into a place of solitude, even if it is only in our heart. St. Francis de Sales, in his Introduction to the Devout Life, points out: “Just as birds have their nests on trees, to which they occasionally retire; and the deer, have bushes and thickets, in which they conceal themselves, in order to enjoy the cool shade in the heat of the summer, so too we should choose someplace” — and he stresses “everyday, either on Mt. Calvary, or in the wounds of our Lord, or in some other place near him, as a retreat to which we may occasionally retire to refresh and recreate ourselves amidst our exterior occupations; and there as in a stronghold, defend ourselves against temptation.” And besides this he adds we should “retire occasionally in the solitude of our heart, while we are outwardly engaged in business or conversation.” Now this practice of retreating into our heart in order to find solitude is a secret recipe for peace of soul. And it can be used anytime, anywhere. St. Francis points out here that when “the parents of St. Catherine of Siena had deprived her of the opportunity of a place and leisure to pray and meditate, our Lord directed her, by his inspirations, to make a little oratory within her soul, into which, retiring mentally, she might, amidst her exterior occupations, enjoy the spirit of a holy solitude” (Bk II, ch.12). And so we too, like St. Catherine of Siena, can shut ourselves up in our own ‘interior closet’ whenever we cannot find physical solitude.

The value of solitude, then, we can say is priceless. For whoever finds it, finds life, and the peace and joy of the Holy Spirit. And so this explains, as the Imitation of Christ notes, why “the greatest saints avoided the company of worldly men as much as possible. For they preferred to be alone with God. As one man said “as often as I have been among men, I have returned less a man” (Bk. I, ch. 20).

A good example that proves the truth of this observation is the life and history of the Carthusian Order. The Carthusians are an order of hermit monks that live in perpetual silence and solitude. They were founded in Grenoble, France by St. Bruno in 1084. Yet to this very day, they have never needed to be reformed. Remarkably they have retained their original fervor. In fact, they are the only monastic order in the history of the Church “to preserve faithfully the true monastic ideal in all its perfection during centuries in which the other orders fell into decay. And the fact that the Carthusians have never needed a reform has long since become proverbial: “Cartusia numquam reformata quia numquam deformata”, which means in English, “the Carthusians have never been reformed because they have never been deformed.”

III. Silence

So much for solitude. Now to discuss silence. Silence, it has been said, not only “completes and intensifies solitude,” but it also is the “way to make solitude a reality.” In other words we can say that silence “is solitude practiced in action.”

The Bible from one end to the other praises the virtue of silence. The book of Proverbs, for example, tells us not only that “where words are many sin is not wanting” (Prov 10:19), but also that “even a fool, if he keeps silent, is considered wise” (Prov 17:28). It is in the New Testament, however, where the doctrine of silence and the control of speech is more fully developed. St. James goes so far as to state that “if anyone does not fall short in speech, he is a perfect man” (Jas 3:2). And Christ himself gives us a frightening warning when he tells us: “On the Day of Judgement people will have to render an account for every idle word they have spoken. For by your words you will be saved, and by your words you will be condemned” (Mt 12:36).

Silence, therefore, has always been highly regarded by the saints and holy people. Once Mother Teresa was asked, “Mother what do you consider the most important thing in the training of your sisters?” And she answered, “Silence. Interior and exterior silence. Silence is essential in a religious house. The silence of humility, of charity, the silence of the eyes, of the ears, of the tongue. There is no life of prayer without silence.” And then at another time she expanded on her philosophy of silence. She explained that “we need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. See how nature, the trees, the flowers and the grass grow in perfect silence.” Finally, she added that without doubt “God is the friend of silence. His language is silence. And he requires us to be silent to discover him. We need, therefore, silence to be alone with God, to speak to him, to listen to him and to ponder his words deep in our hearts. We need to be alone with God in silence to be renewed and to be transformed. For silence can give us a new outlook on life. In it we are filled with the grace of God, which makes us do all things with joy.”

Now if God is the friend of silence, as Mother Teresa tells us, then the devil must be the friend of noise. C. S. Lewis in his Screwtape Letters puts some words in the mouth of the devil that bring out this truth more forcefully than a library of books ever could do. This is what he has the devil say: “Music and silence–how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since our father (that is Lucifer) entered hell no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by, Noise–Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless and virile–Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards the earth. The melodies and silences of heaven will be shouted down in the end.”

This description, though fictional, is quite accurate. For the devil has been extraordinarily successful in making noise and spreading it over the face of the earth. In any modern city it is practically impossible to experience a moment of pure silence–a moment where the air is free from the incessant noise that seems to assault our senses from every side. We cannot walk the streets without hearing the deafening roar of trucks and motorcycles and construction equipment. And it is practically impossible to live in peace in an apartment building because of the constant blare of TV’s, radios and stereos. It is no wonder, then, that mental illness and suicide are on the rise.

People need silence and solitude to rest in the peace of Christ, to recover their psychological and spiritual equilibrium, to think, to meditate, to plan, to contemplate the mysteries of God and the richness of the Faith. But only a relatively few fortunate individuals can do any of this because the majority of men and women are assaulted day and night by deafening demonic Noise.

Pope Paul VI hit the nail on the head he wrote: “Commotion, din, feverish activity, outward appearance and the crowd all threaten man’s inner awareness. (And so because of this) he lacks silence with its genuine voice speaking in the depths of his being: he lacks order, he lacks prayer, he lacks peace, he lacks himself.”

For this reason, Pope Paul VI recommended that we return to the silence of Nazareth and the Holy Family. “If only we could once again appreciate its great value,” he stressed. For “we need this wonderful state of mind, beset as we are by the cacophony of strident protests and conflicting claims so characteristic of these turbulent times. The silence of Nazareth should teach us to meditate in peace and quiet, to reflect on the deeply spiritual, and to be open to the voice of God’s inner wisdom and the value of study and preparation; of meditation, of a well-ordered personal spiritual life, and of silent prayer that is known only to God.”

Pope John Paul II, following this same line of thinking has recommended that we take Mary and St. Joseph as our examples in the silent life. “Mary’s silence,” he stated, “is not only moderation in speech, but it is especially a wise capacity for remembering and embracing in a single gaze of faith the mystery of the Word made man and the events of this earthly life. It is this silence of acceptance of the Word,” he stressed, “this ability to meditate on the mystery of Christ that Mary passes on to believers. And in a noisy world filled with messages of all kinds, her witness enables us to appreciate a spiritually rich silence and fosters a contemplative spirit.”

While St. Joseph, on the other hand, the Pope says, “is presented to us as an incomparable witness of that contemplative silence, full of listening to the word of God, which emanates from the Gospels as the characteristic atmosphere of the house of Nazareth. St. Joseph’s silence (it should be noted) was an active silence, which accompanied his daily work at the service of the Holy Family.” Following St. Joseph’s example then, “all believers,” the Pope urged, “should have in their own life a deep harmony between prayer and work, between meditation on the word of God and their daily occupations.”

Now a major difficulty many people have when it comes to practicing silence is that they are overcome often with a desire to complain. But this attitude is not pleasing to Christ who was “silent and opened not his mouth” when he was insulted and treated unjustly. For Christ suffered for us, as St. Peter tells us, and left us an example to follow. “And when he was insulted, he returned no insult. And when he was made to suffer, he did not counter with threats” (1 Pt 2:21).

St. John of the Cross makes a very strong statement about complaining. He states “anyone who complains or grumbles is not perfect nor is he even a good Christian.” We should never complain, then, not only to others, or about others, but also we should never complain to God. Our response in the face of evil and suffering should be silent acceptance and not angry questioning. For there is silence even in heaven (cf. Rev 8:1).

We must be aware, therefore, how useless it is to complain to God or about God. For as St. John points out, “in giving us his Son, his only Word, he spoke everything to us at once in this sole Word–and he has no more to say… because what he spoke before to the prophets in parts, he has now spoken all at once giving us the All Who is his Son. Any person questioning God or desiring some vision or revelation would be guilty not only of foolish behavior but also of offending him, by not fixing his eyes entirely upon Christ.

Now it is important to be aware that practicing the virtue of silence does not mean that we have to be constantly quiet and never say anything. Nothing could be farther from the truth. For there is such a thing as an unholy silence, for example, giving someone the “silent treatment.” To practice the virtue of silence, then, we must know when to speak, and to whom to speak, and the right way to speak.

The Letters of St. Paul contain much helpful advice on this subject, and could even be called a kind of “summa” of how to speak. In the letter to the Philippians he writes that we must not only “act without grumbling and arguing” (Phil 2:15), but also that we must speak only about “what is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is gracious, and anything worthy of praise” (Phil 4:8). And in his letter to the Ephesians he states that we must “never let evil talk pass our lips, and say only the good things men need to hear, things that will really help them” (Eph 4:29). And then he adds: “immorality, or any impurity or greed must never be mentioned…. Silly or suggestive talk is out of place” (Eph 5:2).

The Psalms also can teach us how to speak in a Christian manner. Psalm 34 tells us: “Whoever would live and see good days must keep the tongue from evil and the lips from speaking deceit.” And Psalm 55 warns us of the high price of lying: “deceitful and bloodthirsty men shall not live half their days.”

We must ever keep in mind, therefore, that silence is not an end in itself, but simply a means to an end, though a very effective one at that. For the primary purpose of silence is to help us grow in the love and knowledge of Christ. And so all our conversations must be selective, and we must sometimes sacrifice our desire to speak with others, if this be the will of God.

Not only that, but we must also practice silence when we are speaking to others. We do this by allowing the other person to speak and listening politely. “Let every man be quick to hear and slow to speak”, as St. James tells us (Jas 1:19). In other words, we should first think and then talk. Blessed Giles the Franciscan says on this point: “we should have a neck like a crane, so that our words would travel a long way before they come out of our mouth.”

IV. Conclusion

All of this, of course, takes great humility to practice. To live a life “hidden with Christ” (Col 3:3) requires the crucifixion of the ego. St. Benedict was well aware of this fact. And this is why he points out in his Rule that silence is inseparable from humility. That is to say you cannot have one without the other.

We cannot live a life of silence, solitude, humility and prayer except with the grace of God and by imitating Mary, the Woman of Silence, as the Pope is fond of calling her. For all graces flow from her hands. And so today let us ask the Blessed Mother, the Queen of Peace, for the light and strength we need to ponder the word of God peacefully in the silence and solitude of our hearts.

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