June 15, 2016 Wednesday: 11th Week in Ordinary Time
Growing in Inner Silence
Silence is an essential component of the spiritual life, yet many complain they can’t experience it either inwardly or outwardly. There’s little we can do to change our noise-polluted world, but can we develop interior silence? The increased noise levels of modern life are inevitable, but what we hear around us should not camouflage our restless spirits or distract us from the sense of alienation that accompanies accelerated change. Living with the roar of buses and subways, drills ripping up concrete, fire and police sirens, unwanted background music, and information overload has brought us to an acute awareness of noise pollution. To cope with this cacophony, we need to set aside times of intentional quiet. Silence is not only an essential component of the spiritual life we must preserve if we want to welcome God’s word; it is that which preserves us.
What is silence? To be silent is not merely to be mute. Spiritual silence is an emptying of self to make room for God. Ultimately it is only silence that can open us to a deeper experience of God.
How do we achieve this state of silence? It is a matter of patiently letting go of our controlling, ego-ridden, manipulating selves. Willful forcing only causes more tension. Most of us have spent a lifetime focusing so intently on our projects that we can’t expect to break their grip on our souls in an instant. We are like a westerner trying to learn the art of archery from a Zen master while not being able to relinquish his desire to hit the bull’s-eye.
With perseverance and God’s grace, our silence will lead us to that solitude which Franz Kafka wrote about in The Great Wall of China:
You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, be quite still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.
At this point of emptiness we can turn to God, who is waiting for us in the silence. This still point is found only in surrender, in daily dying, in letting go of our ego projects as ultimate. At the center of this solitude, we may experience a oneness with the mystery in and around us.
Each time we retreat to a corner of silence in our project-oriented world, each time we practice surrender, we put ourselves in a state of peaceful readiness. We become docile.
As we learn to cultivate these pockets of silence throughout our busy lives, we might slowly discover that action and practice are themselves being transformed into pathways of prayer. The words of Christ to the Samaritan woman come to mind in this regard:
Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him (John 4: 21-23).
Since body and soul form a unity, we can’t expect to acquire inner silence without at least some discipline of outer silence. Exterior silence is meant to be at the service of interior stilling. However, it isn’t wise to rely totally on external structures to enforce silence; it is the inner motivation that urges us to seek the “still point” of our soul. What happens outside us affects what happens within. In this sense outer silence lends itself to interior quieting. Similarly, inward changes manifest themselves outwardly. In other words, the deeper our presence to the Divine, the more it affects the spiritual quality of our outer activity.
The best way to offset noise pollution is to cultivate an atmosphere of silence: outer so that I can recollect myself before God and inner so I can listen and respond to his word.
By Susan Muto and Adrian van Kaam
Am I Living a Spiritual Life? Questions and Answers for Those Who Pray