Thursday, January 6, 2022

The Value of Silence in a World of Noise

Cardinal Robert Sarah.
Noise is a tyrant. The noisier the world is, the more we feel compelled to pay attention to its ongoing petty dramas and obey its bothersome decrees. 

Worse, noise takes us out of ourselves. We never have to look inward and confront our true selves so long as we have the distraction of noise to let us ignore our inner work. 

I'm a quiet person to begin with. I live in my head. I've always felt like a silent observer upon a world consumed with noisy distractions. I'm terrible at small talk. I'd rather listen to meaningful debates and discussions -- and maybe even, if I'm in the right mood, participate in them. 

But for the most part, I hate talking. I really do. If I ever lost any of my physical functions, I wouldn't be all that put out if I could never speak again.

I'm flummoxed most days by a world that never shuts up. It feels like we're running away from the truth, deliberately pushing aside the silence, terrified of what we might find there.

Cardinal Robert Sarah would agree with this assessment. I'm reading his book The Power of Silence as preparation for beginning my own weekly day of silence. This is something I've vowed to do for quite some time, but for 2022 I've made it a resolution. 

Cardinal Sarah and I probably have different conceptions of the divine, but I agree with him when he points out that so many of the great religious figures across history have sought out God in silence, from Jesus in the desert, to the Carmelite contemplatives like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, to the Desert Fathers whose self-imposed solitude deepened their already rich spiritual groundings. 

One thing I used to love about attending Quaker meetings was the profound silence. There was no one singing, no one reciting scripture, no one giving a sermon -- just a group of faithful people sitting in a circle, looking inward, rising to speak if they felt the Spirit moving them to do so, and then returning to reflective silence. In the few years I sat with the Quakers, there were many meetings that passed in complete silence, and those were some of the most profound gatherings I ever attended. There was in those quietest of meetings a palpable presence of something holy and divine, something that would have gone unnoticed in the chatter and clatter of a typical church ceremony. The whole point, after all, was to listen for the still, small voice within (1 Kings 19:11-12), in hopes that we could "be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10).  

Lectio Divina can take us to a similar place. The ancient practice involves meditating on a passage of scripture, sitting with it, plumbing the depths of its meanings. A literal surface reading of scripture is scarcely ever enough and in fact often leads to a kind of rigid fundamentalism. Many atheists, ironically, become the mirror image of their fundamentalist opponents by dismissing a literal reading of scripture as nothing but a trove of outdated absurdities. Well, of course the modern materialistic mind would see scripture as such, if you lack the desire to dig deeper in an attempt to understand what mysteries and existential truths the readings are capable of conveying to us, no matter the time and place.

I find it telling that the modernists leading the Catholic church today are attacking the very faith traditions that encourage silence and reflection. The low Latin Mass passes in de facto silence, as the priest, his voice unamplified and his body turned toward the altar and crucifix, speaks the Mass in Latin and receives responses only from the altar boys. The current pope and his underlings are deliberately attempting to end the Latin Mass, where people gather in reverent silence and prayer to watch the priest prepare the unbloody sacrifice of Holy Communion for those present. There's a similar attack under way on the contemplative monastic orders, those whose lives revolve around sacred, prayerful silence and a deliberate separation from the world. It boggles the mind to confront the fact that if Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross were alive today, their contemplative lives would be in the crosshairs of the Vatican. Of course, back then Teresa had to deal with the Spanish Inquisitors -- proof, perhaps, that some things never change. 

Cardinal Sarah recently said of the building crackdown on the old Latin Mass:

What was holy and sacred yesterday cannot be condemned to disappear today. What harm does the Traditional Mass cause? What harm? If they can learn to meet Christ in a Mass celebrated in silence, in respect for the sacred, they must not doubt it. Everybody wants to grow in God. Why stop him?

The good cardinal's words reflect those of Pope Benedict XVI, who lifted restrictions on saying the Latin Mass when he was the pontiff. He pulled no punches in his criticism of those who attacked the traditional form of worship, used in the Catholic church universally for more than 400 years before the Second Vatican Council rejected it in favor of a modernist approach to religion that has largely failed as an experiment: 

For fostering a true consciousness in liturgical matters, it is also important that the proscription against the form of liturgy in valid use up to 1970 [the older Latin Mass] should be lifted. Anyone who nowadays advocates the continuing existence of this liturgy or takes part in it is treated like a leper; all tolerance ends here. There has never been anything like this in history; in doing this we are despising and proscribing the Church’s whole past. How can one trust her at present if things are that way? 

I like the Latin Mass precisely for its reverent silence. If the current papacy succeeds in taking the Mass away, it will do a grave disservice to many who find their connection to the divine in the calm and quiet. It would indeed inflict profound spiritual harm on those who desire nothing more than their own method of devout worship, many of them after finding no depth or fulfillment from a modern Mass that was designed in large part not to offend Protestants and to play nice with the modern world.

I myself remember the tacky folk Masses of my youth and teen years, and I'm old enough to remember when churches shoved their Mary statues into closets, seemingly embarrassed by anything that made Catholics Catholic. One Eastern Orthodox observer at Vatican II said he was assured by another attendee that "we'll get rid of Mariology very soon." Those were the fruits of the council, and that's why it was such a misguided failure. Yet people with those very same attitudes still preside over the church today -- including Pope Francis' own secretary of state, Pietro Parolin, who stated flatly last year that "we must put an end to this Mass forever," meaning the Latin Mass.

Little wonder that people my age and older are falling away from the faith, with both weekly church attendance and priestly vocations in freefall, while the young are flocking to the Traditional Latin Mass. It seems as if the modernists are mounting a last-gasp effort to impose their view of the church on everyone by denying them their traditional worship, as if the Latin Mass, by virtue of its very existence, is an indictment of where the modernists went wrong.

In any event, the irony couldn't be more rich that this pope, who possessed such promise by holding himself out as a pastoral shepherd who reached out to people on the margins, would be so hostile toward the less than 1% of Catholics who choose to attend the Latin Mass. He has proved himself to be a rigid, bureaucratic bully, looking the other way at the church's myriad actual problems and challenges while focusing his wrath on some of the most devout and well-catechized Catholics you'll ever come across.

It's a pity that Cardinal Sarah, aged 76 as of this writing, will probably never become pope. It's far more likely, in fact, that we'll get another tradition-hating Pope Francis, given the large number of cardinals he's appointed. Traditionalists are therefore going to face a hard road in the immediate future. Little wonder that people resort to sedevacantism or convert to Orthodoxy.

But enough about that. As far as sacred silence in my own life goes, I can only say that although I'm happy with my little family, if I could have pursued an alternative path in life, I think I would have retired to a monastery and taken a vow of silence. So I intend to do the next best thing and deliberately fast from all unnecessary communication for one day a week. My family has asked that I not do it on my days off from work, which is a fair concession. That means it'll have to fall on a day when I use my computer to earn money for my family. And that, in turn, will impose a discipline on me to only use my computer for work, avoiding the temptation to aimlessly browse the Web, needlessly answer emails and texts, and the like when I take a break. I envision that any need for verbal communication away from the computer will be handled by writing it down. 

This is a work in progress, and I imagine there will be tweaks along the way. But I have a strong urge to give it a try. If Gandhi found a weekly day of silence spiritually edifying, then I think it's fair for me to hold out hope that such a practice will yield some good benefits. At the very least, I think it will reveal, even to an already quiet person like me, just how much mindless noise we fill our lives with every day. And I hope that in the end, it will make me more mindful of the things I say and do, and more receptive to the needs and desires of others. 

After all, you can't be a good listener if you never shut up.  

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