One thing that indicated I may have a priestly vocation was my love of silence. I don’t recall when I first became aware of my comfort with the absence of “noise,” but my ability to enjoy silence in seminary was a sign to me that I may perhaps have a calling to the priesthood.
The love of silence is likely a gift from God, and therefore we can pray for it if we do not think we possess it. Some gifts are given to us without our having to request them. That is (I believe) what happened to me with regard to silence. There are many, many things that I have prayed for and continue to pray for, but I do not ever recall praying for the gift of the love of silence.
Some people (even priests) are uncomfortable with silence. At seminary, each class made an annual retreat, and I remember feeling dismay that some of my classmates refused to observe silence during meals and at other prescribed times. My thinking went something like this: “Can’t you just shut up for a little bit?!” Thankfully, I never uttered those words, but I do remain puzzled that some people are nearly militant about disrupting silence.
An interesting aspect of silence is that we never experience it absolutely. Even in the quietest of moments, our ears may be ringing, we can hear our breathing, and sometimes our heartbeat seems audible. A love of silence does not involve the absence of sound; rather, silence is the absence of unnecessary noise.
This blog entry would be too long if I tried to differentiate necessary from unnecessary noise, but I will focus on a few types of sounds to illustrate how we can practice “fasting” from noise. Lent is already underway, but that does not mean we should avoid new opportunities to perform little penances!
One penance that I like to practice during Lent is to drive with my radio off. Before I begin my journey—be it long or short—I offer to God in prayer the silence that I will endure, and I ask God to fill the void with his presence.
This principle applies to things like taking a walk too. Jesus loved to walk along the Sea of Galilee, and in imitation of him, when I have the opportunity, I like to walk along Long Island Sound. It astounds me how many people run or walk on the beach while listening to music or something else. What music can be as beautiful as the sound of the waves on the shore, combined with the sound of gulls? These “necessary” sounds comprise the silence, which is by nature spiritual.
Several years ago, I gave up having a television in my home. I live alone, so it was a unilateral decision. While not everyone can go without a TV, Lent is certainly a good time to turn it off for significant periods of time. Individuals and families can practice fasting from the sound of the television that runs nearly non-stop in many households.
Finally (and now I feel like Uncle Sam pointing his finger), when is the last time that you made an appointment to meet Jesus in an empty church for some serious prayer time? Most churches are open during business hours. Perhaps you have a day off or know that you will be free from work for some reason. You can schedule a time to visit a church and sit (likely) alone in the pews, in silence. To raise it to another level, you can practice “listening prayer,” which involves asking God to speak to you while you remain silent: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:9).
The primary reason many people are uncomfortable with silence is that experiencing it can force us to look inside ourselves, perhaps into areas that we would rather keep “covered-over.” Noise can be comforting, even addicting. It can help us to avoid facing ourselves, and it can help us to avoid hearing the voice of God calling us.
As with most things in life—even if we believe ourselves “untalented”—we can grow more comfortable with silence through practice. Driving without the radio is a good start. Turning off the TV at home may even be better!