First let us force ourselves to be silent, and then from out of this silence something is born that leads us into Silence itself. May God grant you to perceive some part of that which is born of silence.
St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 64
I’m at an archdiocese convention in Chicago, in a huge hotel with hundreds and hundreds of people. Last night, I went to a Cubs game with some of my fellow delegates. We took the subway (E-ticket ride if ever there was one!) Lots of shouting and cheering, moderate amounts of beer and an unbelievable “Chicago Style” hotdog. More meetings today. More people.
And yet, I have been thinking about silence. I have been practicing silence–in a crowd. I explained to someone once that a hermit is the most connected member of the Body of Christ because he or she carries the whole world in their heart. We who are surrounded by the world, who swim in the world, have hearts that are empty, lonely and selfish. Silence, it seems to me, functions in a similar way. Of course, outer silence is part of the way to inner silence; but the “forcing” of silence that St. Isaac is speaking of is not talking so much about that outer silence as it is the quieting of the noise in our minds. Forcing our thoughts to be silent, we can experience something of a birth into an even deeper Silence–the Silence which is the language of God Himself.
Even at a busy convention one can take moments alone. You go to your cell (room), unplug the TV and turn off your phone; or if you have a busy room, then you take a long walk or find a lonely room in the convention centre part of the hotel. If you look, you can usually find a corner of relative external quiet somewhere. Here you say your prayers, read your spiritual book, say the Jesus Prayer and do a few prostrations. Here you force the mind to be quiet. You let go of all of the world that you mentally started grabbing onto through the day. You find, or create, the quiet place in yourself and you just stay there for a while, for a few moments, for as long as you can.
And then you take the quiet with you into the noise. As your attention is drawn from here to there, for person to person, from responsibility to responsibility, under it all is a kind of eson, a kind of hum of quiet, gentle remembrances from the quiet place. Sometimes it is a feeling (faint, for sure), sometimes it is a word from your spiritual reading or an impression that came to you in prayer. You let it re-emerge even in the midst of the hubbub. It’s your little secret thought, your secret communion with God in the midst of the city, the noise, the people. It doesn’t stay long. As you get tired and busy and passions flare up, the quiet is hidden beneath the layers of noise.
That’s why you have to return to the quiet place. You have to go back to your corner, go for your walk, hide in your closet…whatever it is that you do to find enough external quiet to force your mind to let go and return to the quiet.
We can’t do anything much about our situations in life. We are where we are, and we do what we do. God knows that. But God also knows that there are closets, quiet places, niches, walks in the park, stolen moments in the middle of the night, God also knows that these are there for us if we want them, if we will look for them. And God will use whatever it is that we have and whatever we offer to Him to come to us, to help us know His abiding in us. We can’t make that happen. We can just take advantage of whatever little spaces and places and moments we can find to wait in relative quiet–Just in cast, just in case God at that moment wants to give birth in us something of the Silence that comes from silence.
One of the things I love about St. Isaac it that he speaks not only to those who achieve the heights, but also to us who slog it out in the muddy lowlands. He prays for us. St. Isaac prays that God would grant even us who are still in the valley, that even we may perceive some part of that which is born of silence. You see: even a part. A part is good. Just because I will never be in a place in life where I can scale the lofty spiritual heights that St. Isaac knows, still I can know a part. And as it is with the Holy Eucharist, so it is with any way God comes to us: a part of God is all of God.
This is the mystery. This is the irony. I can fail and still be full, as full as I am capable of being. God will fill my little cup if only I will make a little effort to hold it out to Him. Sure saints have much more capacity–they have spent a lifetime purifying themselves so that they can hold more. But whether our cups are large or minuscule, to be full is to be full.
Silence is possible in the city–in some small part. And a small part is huge when we are talking about God.