By Laura Melius
“Waiting in silence, waiting in hope, we are your people, we long for you, Lord. Lord God, ever with us, Emmanuel. Come Lord Jesus. Maranatha!”
These words from the Advent hymn, “Waiting in Silence,” speak of the beautiful, blessed quiet of the penitential season of Advent. What, exactly, is silence? Why is silence so vital to a healthy spiritual life, especially in Advent?
What is silence?
We know what silence is not—we live in a world that operates in direct opposition to silence. Bob Billotto, parishioner at St. Joseph Parish in Eureka, experiences this in his daily life.
“Our culture seems to opt for noise everywhere,” he said. “If you enter an elevator, there is music. It’s so common that we call it ‘elevator music.’ Grocery stores and department stores also have music piped in over the loudspeakers. It’s as if our culture believes that no one could survive without at least some conscious or unconscious distraction.”
“The worldly culture is largely concerned with economy, to keep us producing and consuming products,” Father Darin Schmidt, parochial vicar of Pastorate 14, added. “Silence tends to interrupt this cycle of distractions and consumerism. If we turn off the noise, then we’re no longer buying or clicking or consuming whatever it is people are trying to sell us.”
As we seek solace from this background noise that consumes our days, we can hopefully find quiet stillness, if even for a few moments. This external silence will often help us find an environment that is more conducive to prayer and communication with God. However, still, in those quiet places, we may find that we require yet another type of silence.
Dawn Melius, parishioner at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Faulkton, said, “When we are speaking of spiritual silence, there is more to it than being where it is audibly quiet. In the still of the night, when all is quiet in the world, one can lay awake with a mind full of racing ideas, thoughts, fears and worries.”
Bob has also experienced this in prayer. “Silence is more than just the absence of external noise. Many times when I pray, I’m distracted by internal noise. By that, I mean that all of the thoughts that I have during prayer can be a hindrance to my prayers.”
Father Schmidt acknowledges that between external and internal silence, internal silence is of more significance in our spiritual lives. It is usually more difficult to attain, since finding a place of internal silence is a habit that must be developed over time.
“Someone who has built a habit of internal silence and watchfulness over his own distractions and worries can eventually maintain a level of internal silence even in the midst of external noise and activity,” he explained.
This seeking of internal silence, or “recollection,” helps us to re-collect our attention and mental focus. Too many responsibilities, concerns and distractions can leave our attention and focus too inadequate to properly attend to them. As we hone this internal silence habit, we will find our time of prayer, introspection and contemplation to be more fruitful.
Achieving silence amid the noise
Father Schmidt further explained that achieving internal silence allows us to delve deeper into our innermost questions and desires, our desire for God and his eternal perspective. When we are internally quieted, “We see the people and events in our lives as God sees them, in light of his work to bring us to salvation through Christ to the everlasting life in heaven,” Father Schmidt said. “Without silence, we often end up living and praying very superficially and lacking focus, mainly occupied with just the latest distractions and immediate concerns without understanding them in a broader context.”
Dawn says she gives her relationship with Jesus the same attention she does other relationships in her life, and she incorporates both external and internal silence to nurture those conversations.
“Think about other relationships. If you were to only spend time with a person at big events and in crowded, noisy environments, how well would you really know them, and how well would they know you?” she said. “How deep would that relationship be? In contrast, if you spent one-on-one time with someone, in a quiet environment having conversations, how much better would you each know one another? When developing a relationship with Jesus, it is through prayer; prayer is conversation with Jesus. And conversations are two-way dialogue.”
When seeking silence in the midst of a noisy world, there are some practical steps we can take to begin.
“One of the first steps is just to realize how much time and mental energy we are spending consuming the news or social media and other diversions and entertainment, and to be more deliberate in how we use these,” Father Schmidt suggested. “We might set time limits for children, but all of us need limits and discipline in these areas.”
Then, he suggested that the next step is to find those times in the day where we can spend even a few quiet moments with God. “Sometimes it’s better just to leave the radio or TV off, or the music or podcasts, to be alone with God and more present to one another.”
As a mother of five children, Dawn has seen opportunities for silence change through the seasons of her life.
“At this stage of life, I often find myself awake in the night,” she said. “Sometimes it is quite frustrating, laying there thinking about the need to get back to sleep, which does not help one go back to sleep! Instead of this, I have turned this time into an opportunity for very quiet solitude, prayer and contemplation. Sometimes, I think that I am awakened because someone needs my prayers, so I pray a Rosary in the middle of the night. Using these unexpected times for prayer makes these moments a blessing, to others as well as myself.”
Why silence in Advent?
“Advent is known for silence, at least here in the northern hemisphere, because nature itself is slowing down, bracing for winter,” Father Schmidt said. “Advent also coincides with the shortening of daylight hours—in an analogous way—a type of ‘silence’ for our eyes in the longer hours of darkness that come over the world as we approach the winter solstice.”
Bob added to Father Schmidt’s thoughts. “Catholic author Matthew Kelly says that we all need ‘silence, solitude and stillness’ every day if we are to communicate with Jesus. If Advent means to prepare for our Lord’s coming, then silence and silent prayer are very important, not just for that preparation but also for communication with Jesus.”
Hope, Father Schmidt said, is the virtue most closely associated with Advent, as we hope, keep watch and wait with perseverance for the dawning of Christ in the midst of the world’s darkness.
We begin to physically light the darkness as parish communities at Mass each Sunday of Advent, with the lighting of the Advent wreath candles. The four candles, three purple and one rose, each have their own special meaning, as an additional candle is lit each Sunday until the Nativity of the Lord. The first candle represents hope, the second peace, the third joy and the fourth love—all virtues we embrace during this season.
Father Schmidt acknowledged that although most Catholics are probably more aware of the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, not as many tend to know about or put Advent traditions into practice.
“One of the main traditions is keeping candlelight vigils, to pray and spend time with God in the morning or evening during these days of greater darkness,” Father Schmidt said. “Make a point to start an Advent tradition this year. Set a time for yourself, even for your whole family, to gather together in the evening, for example, maybe to read a passage from Isaiah or the weekday Mass readings, and then just spend a few minutes in silence, maybe shorter to start with, depending on the ages of those involved. Then share and pray and give thanks. Light a candle and just watch the flame for a while. Wake up early to just sit and listen as the world around you gradually wakes up to begin the day.”
A habit of silence
When continuing the practice of silence even after Advent, Father Schmidt suggests making and keeping appointments with God for quiet time in prayer. If it is difficult to keep this appointment consistently, ask a friend or family member to help with accountability.
“We won’t grow in physical strength and health without consistency and a commitment to regular exercise. The same is true in the spiritual life,” he said.
Taking the time for silence has been personally valuable in Bob’s prayer life all through the year. “Sometimes, when I read my Bible at home, I will read a passage from Scripture and it’s as if Jesus was speaking directly to me,” Bob said. “I have even found myself saying out loud, ‘I hear you, Lord.’”
Dawn looks to Jesus’ example and what he sought at key moments in his life.
“When it was most important to communicate with the Father, what did Jesus do? He took Simon, James and John up on a mountain when the Transfiguration happened,” Dawn said. “When he was pleading intensely with God prior to the Passion, he left his friends and went off by himself in the Garden of Gethsemane. Forty days in the desert is another example of time alone, in the quiet.”
For those seeking an extended silent time in prayer, several opportunities for silent retreats are available in the diocese throughout the year. Broom Tree Retreat Center, near Irene, and Abbey of the Hills, near Marvin, offer retreats, from one-day, five to eight-days or even 30 days. Father Schmidt said these retreats have been very well received by the people of the diocese.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone really regretting giving such time to God and to their spiritual health,” he said. “Even retreats that seem more ‘uneventful,’ as far as sensible consolations or spiritual insights go, we often see later on how God was nourishing us in more hidden ways through those and preparing us for upcoming trials.”
The shorter, one-day retreats can be helpful for those with busier schedules or those who are new to the concept of a silent retreat.
“It’s enough at least to alleviate some fears and anxieties for those who think, ‘I couldn’t possibly shut up long enough for something like that,’” Father Schmidt explained. “These retreats often offer an introduction to Lectio Divina, a prayerful reading of Scripture, or imaginative prayer, which shows us how to pay attention to how different words of the Scripture strike us and interact with our experiences and desires. Imaginative prayer helps place ourselves in the scenes and events described in Scripture and reflect on how God is speaking to us.”
Father Schmidt suggests that it may take a whole day or two days of more deliberate prayer to really quiet our minds and hearts from distractions and to fully experience the spiritual benefits of a silent retreat.
“If there is ever any way to fit one of these longer retreats into your schedule, there’s nothing else quite like it to bolster your spiritual life,” he encouraged. “It may be similar to a football or volleyball camp during the summer that really strengthens the fundamentals and can serve as a foundation for improvement throughout the rest of the year.
“Not every diocese has retreat centers hosting such powerful spiritual events as these silent retreats of various lengths where God reaffirms his love for his sons and daughters and helps us to respond and make a gift of ourselves back to him,” Father Schmidt continued. “We shouldn’t underestimate the impact and benefit that is bestowed on our whole diocese through the prayer and encounters with God taking place at Broom Tree, Abbey of the Hills and other retreat ministries offered.”
There’s a phrase carved on the front of the altar at Sts. Isidore and Maria Chapel at Broom Tree: In the silence, God speaks.
“When Elijah went to meet God on the mountain, he witnessed fire and earthquake, driving wind and storm, but it was in a tiny whispering sound, a still, small voice that Elijah recognized the presence of God and veiled his face out of reverence,” Father Schmidt said. “It can seem scary at first to practice silence, to be alone with our thoughts for any length of time, but we aren’t ever truly alone. God is with us. Let’s give him the time and opportunity, the space of silence to hear him speak to us. Through the quieting of our own minds and hearts and the noise around us, may God find us attentive to his voice.”