The Music of Silence
When I was young I had an unconscious habit of humming. My mother told me that I did it more than I realized, and that even at the dinner table I would often be humming a tune, that is, until it was pointed out to me. Then I would have to acquiesce to an imposed “humming silence.” I guess one could say I had a natural love for making music, with some sort of tune always running through my head. But when I discovered that I could learn to play an instrument to express song it became a passion for me. I loved making music and listening to music. But it was not until I was into the work of really learning how to play (the clarinet) that I learned the value of the silence between the notes. I learned that the notes only make sense as music when one has appropriate spaces, or rests, between them. Another way to put it is that the silences, no matter how short, are what make the music express anything.
In the struggle of the last few months of moving parents and being there when they have crises (or even in their day-to-day needs) I have reflected on how important it is to take time to be compassionate with one’s own self. In my own journey I have come to realize that extroverted as I am, I crave silences between the necessary activities of being attentive to those who are in my care. And it is in those silences that I have come to see the beauty and importance of taking time to simply listen to that which is happening around me and that which is happening within me. Without time for silence, there is nothing but noise. And without silence, I cannot hear my own longings and desires; nor can I hear those of God. Just as we need the silence, or rests, to make notes convey music, so, too, do we need to rest if we are going to be fully attentive to the presence of God and to that which is within. If we are not physically rested, we might eventually burn out so that we cannot do the things we want to do, or at least we will find that we cannot do them well. The same is true of our spiritual lives.
The mistake we make is to think that silence means an abyss of nothingness, and therefore we run from it. Time spent in silence is not devoid of sound or stimulus. It is not about a vacuum; rather, it is full of its own music. Silence means that we make a space, clearing away that which is keeping us from truly listening to our heart, and allowing that which is within us to gently come to the surface so we can spend time with it. Silence is alive with presence. It is the presence of God which we come to realize in the silence and it is our own self that we discover as we come before Him.
Often I hear people say that when they pray they do not hear God speak to them. They say it is just, well, silent. The problem is that they are expecting to hear words or to get profound insights. That is not how it works with silence. God does speak, but He speaks in presence. He speaks in revealing to us who we are, and who we were created by Him to be. Listening to His presence is like going outside on a crisp, clear night and looking to the sky to see the Milky Way or a cluster of stars which absolutely takes one’s breath away. The feeling one has, the reaction to such a spectacular sight, is a type of listening in the silence. One's reaction to such beauty means that one has heard something stirring deep within. It is not words we hear. We hear in a different way that goes beyond words: we hear with our heart. This is how God most often speaks. He communicates in a way that goes beyond words and is experienced on a much deeper level. We sometimes miss Him because we were expecting words, but it is in the silences that we come to “understand” by experiencing His presence.
A time in the life of Christ that has been attracting me lately is a time of silence. It is the time between His birth and being left behind in the Temple at age 12, and it is the unknown of what took place between age 12 and the beginning of His ministry. I find this time fascinating because it is the time that formed Him into the person who emerges at His baptism, ready for the mission for which He came. We have no information whatsoever about this time because the gospels were not intended to be biographies. Yet it is the silence between Jesus' birth and start of His ministry which can tell us so much about Him as both God and man. It reveals to us something of His humility and obedience, of His love and respect for His earthly parents, as well as for His true Father in Heaven. And this silent time tells us that in this life all things take time to develop, grow, and be revealed. It teaches us that there are some things we are not meant to know, but rather that we have to embrace the mystery which is a part of all that there is. And it tells us that there is a certain suffering that sitting in mystery can bring. All of this is understood by Jesus who experienced it as we do.
I wonder how many times Jesus was tempted to be impatient with the process. I am sure that being tempted in the desert, as described in the beginning of the synoptic gospels, was not the first time he experienced temptation. I wonder how many times He asked the Father if it was time yet, just as children ask "are we there yet?" on a trip somewhere. I wonder how many times He sat outside in the silence of a starry night and listened to the Father with His Heart, not His ears. If Jesus was fully human like us (and He was!) then He had to have had these experiences. We do not know when He had full understanding of who He was, but no matter when that took place He had to learn to listen to the fullness of silence just like we do. He, too, had to learn that it is not always about the words or the sounds, but it is about the spaces between them.
As we struggle to understand our lives, the world around us, the pain of those for whom we care, the mysteries of suffering or of miracles which abound, the only way to come to acceptance of them is to spend time in the silence of God's presence. Just as God was so far above Moses that when Moses asked to see Him, God said he could only get a glimpse of His back in order not to be overwhelmed; and just as God told Job that He could not explain the mystery of suffering to him since no one can understand the intricacies of life, we too, will not have the sights or words we want. But like Moses or Job, we will have the presence of God which is so full of His love and wisdom that it satisfies our longing just enough to help us know we are not alone.
Without taking time to be in God's presence we will never have the opportunity to learn how to hear in the silence that which is most important to us. Silence is not empty, rather it is full. It is full of God's love for us, and in that love is all the revelation which we will ever need in this life. If we were meant to have the answer to every mystery in our lives, we would not need God, nor would we need anyone. If that were the case we really would have a deafening silence and we would be in a void. Instead, God in all His wisdom, realized we need mystery in order to continue to seek out others, to seek ourselves and the beauty within, and to seek out the One who loves us without any reservation or limitation. That is the most beautiful gift one can ever receive. Let us sit in the silence of God where the music is made more beautiful by that which is not heard but experienced in mystery.
May we discover the music of God’s presence in the silence of our prayer! May we take the time to care for ourselves in rest! May we take the renewed energy we find in rest and prayer outward in service to others! And may we find the beauty of our inner selves in the presence of God! Let us continue to meet in the silence of God’s Heart! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The photo on top is mine. It was taken while I was climbing Mt. Mucrone in northern Italy. I chose it as a reminder that we are surrounded by the presence of God, as being enveloped in a cloud.
The second photo is a NASA photo found on Google.
The icon is Hagia Hesychia Jesus Christ Redeemer Holy Silence by Fr. William Hart NcNichols. Here is a description of the symbolism of this icon as found on the site: "This icon of "Hagia Hesychia" (Holy Silence) is a rendition of a most unusual 18th century icon from Russia of an allegorical representation of Christ as the female "Hagia Sophia" (Holy Wisdom) and the mystical Russian Jesus Prayer."
It can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/gallery-views/divinity-and-angelic-figures-gallery/product/283-hagia-hesychia-jesus-christ-redeemer-holy-silence
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Heart Speaks to Heart