Hearing the Lord in Silence

Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture
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One of the great blessings of St. Albert's Priory is the silence -- periods of great quiet where one is able to reflect, recollect, and be with God. This time of “still” is a great spiritual luxury, a time of prayer and solitude. In the hustle and bustle of a modern and urban setting, we are bombarded with sounds: traffic, car horns, sirens, cell phones, alarm clocks, and all the machines that make our world possible. Modern life is just plain noisy. Sonically speaking, the world is a very different place than it was for the early Dominicans, even for those religious men and women a century ago. Truly if there is one respect in which modernity has altered life, it is by stealing away the silence.


Last week, during one of these periods of quiet, the Lord brought me to a deeper understanding of the beauty of silence, and its importance in the life of prayer. If I am to unite myself with the mission and work of the great saints of old, it must begin right here, stocking the fire of the interior life in the silence of prayer.


I recall a prayer that a retreat master once offered to open a day of silence and, though I cannot remember every word, the finale certainly left an impression: “...that our hearts and minds might be open to the Lord,who speaks in silence.”


Why is silence so important for hearing the voice of God? Now that I am more adapted to the rhythm of Dominican life, the answer has begun to dawn on me. Silence is a powerful icon of God, perhaps the greatest icon we have. It is utterly simple, like one long “now” without division of parts, yet large enough to contain all measure of diversity and plurality.


I am reminded of the Prophet Elijah who, upon being told to stand on the mountain before the Lord, was engulfed by violent winds, fires and earthquakes. None of these, as powerful and as distracting as they must have been, brought the voice of God. However, in the silence that followed, when he heard a “still small voice” speaking in the calm of his heart, he covered his face with his mantle, for then he knew he was in the presence of the Almighty. It was in the school of silence that Elijah learned to recognize the voice of the Lord.


When we allow ourselves to enter into silence, when we make room for it, we then realize that it was there all along, not imposing itself like a tyrant, but waiting for us like a patient friend. It never left us; we left it; or rather forgot to notice it. Where had we gone? 


We cannot create silence or manufacture it; we can only get out of its way and simply let it be. Unlike human artifacts, it can never be rendered “secular” or “timely.” It can never be out-of-date or old-fashioned. Only human creations get old. But this is exactly what we should expect. Our creations were made by us and for us, to suit us and entertain us. Just as every cause is contained in its effect, so do our own artifacts resemble their makers each in its own way, like various reflections in a mirror. When they no longer arrest our attention, we simply get bored with them and create new ones: a new pop song, a new movie star, a new fashion trend, a new gadget to play with.


But silence will forever lie just beyond the reach of human touch. It reminds us that there is something in our souls that will never be satisfied by a mere reflection of our finite selves. In fact, if we manage to sit in silence for long enough, that seemingly bottomless ache will begin to rumble in that even more bottomless resonance-chamber of the human soul, and thus remind us that we will only be satisfied by the infinite God. Pascal wrote, “I have discovered that the unhappiness of men comes from just one thing, not knowing how to remain quietly in a room.”


This is why I have found silence so powerful in the spiritual life; it is the sound of the sacred. Truly the rising of the heart and mind to God -- the essence of prayer -- is what the human soul does naturally if not troubled. If not distracted or held back by other concerns, the soul in the state of grace will fall to God like gravity to its true center. Perhaps this is the reason why so many of the great saints, even those not cloistered in religious life, hungered for hours and hours of silence spent with God. It is here that the soul can truly be itself.


It is in prayer that I am united with the Dominicans of the past and all the saints who have died in friendship with Jesus; united in our Lord who is the end towards which we all tend. I am united with them in the great liturgical prayers of the Church, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and the chanting of the Divine office. As a member of the Order of Preachers I long to unite with them in the cause of saving souls through the preaching of the Word, and the living of the three vows. 


I know that I am still a sinner; religious life has made that uncomfortably clear. There is still much of that random noise echoing in my own soul from the original fault of man. The senior friars have jokingly warned that, once the white habit is worn, all the stains show, literally and figuratively! But I am growing. Slowly but surely, little by little, I am growing, and walking the same path that hundreds of Dominicans have walked before me.


I pray, if it is the Lord’s will, that one day I may also cross the same passover and sleep the same sleep, resting in that same silence that can only come from the life of sanctifying grace. This is where all the prayers, psalms and hymns will cease and reach their goal. They will all be realized in that perfect silence of heaven. Then and there will that perfect stillness be, and that one perfect and infinite WORD uttered from all eternity will be the only sound we hear.