Jesus told his disciples not to show off or make a spectacle of themselves as they gave alms and ministered to the needy, as they prayed and worshipped, and to not look like pathetic, starving people when they fasted. These are the words of the sixth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel that are read annually for the celebration of Ash Wednesday throughout the Church, including the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. They are words that comprise Jesus’ yearly inauguration of the season of Lent.
One aspect of the personal Lenten ritual that isn’t always understood is simply: silence. It surely isn’t something we can take for granted, and in fact, one usually has to go looking for it. The closest Jesus got to discussing it in this Gospel is during his instruction on prayer. He pointed to the fallacy of parading our prayer in front of others like a special commendation whether in church or in public places. Even though we often pray for the same things, everyone’s prayer is a unique communication with God, and Jesus raised that point, encouraging us to keep it personal.
Jesus told the disciples to seek privacy (and also the implication of silence) by going to their inner room and closing the door. In the prayerful concept of Teresa of Avila, the human body and soul is an interior castle with several rooms, each one leading to the next until one’s prayer is centered on the presence of God. Jesus wasn’t talking about going to find some secret little room somewhere, and St Teresa understood that. The interior castle is exactly that; it is the inner chamber of our hearts where we meet God within ourselves, where we can hear his voice among the quiet.
When St Paul revealed his version of his conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 22), he said that the men who travelled with him saw a light but could not hear the voice that spoke to him. Not everyone will experience conversion to the Lord by being knocked to the ground and blinded, but all have the opportunity to hear the soft whisper of God as he guides our endeavors. The voice of silence speaks to our hearts, not our ears.
But silence is not just about getting away from the cacophony of daily life. It has more to do with stepping inside ourselves and realizing the presence of God. Most states have eased or eliminated ‘blue laws’ over the passage of time. These laws prohibited certain businesses and activities from taking place on Sunday, which obviously provided fuel for opponents of a ‘quiet’ Sunday. The whole idea was seen as an attempt to promote Christian faith, and even some of the laws indicated they were put in place to assure people would do right things, like attend church on Sunday. Many states still control the sale of liquor on Sunday. The whole idea of blue laws in this country coincidentally began with the pilgrims seeking religious freedom.
There are many things we can do to promote times of real silence, and we don’t have to lock ourselves in a room somewhere to achieve them. Of course, Sunday Mass is a good place to begin. We gather as a community seeking God’s presence, and the sheer magnificence of our liturgical prayer should lead to quieting our hearts. He is present in the Eucharist. How long after Mass do you hold on to that peaceful feeling? Is it all day or all week? Do we seek more from God because of this blessing? Or does the peace only last until we get to the parking lot and find the church driveway jammed?
Real silence calls us to slow down our lives, stop and smell the roses, so to speak. It calls us to talk about our faith with others from whom we learn and teach. It urges us to contemplate wisdom, that we might grow and share of that, as well. We are called to read things that are healthy for our inner self. In our homes, real silence may even come from the enjoyment of the people around us. Our hearts are content when we are sharing life with those we love.
It isn’t always easy to live the good behavior Jesus tried to instill. Perhaps bringing silence to our inner selves seems too difficult. In the midst of his assassination, with people yelling and cursing, pummeling him with rocks, the first Christian martyr St Stephan was able to find inner silence and peace by simply praying, and he was lifted from the agony by our Savior.
As each Catholic begins his/her personal Lenten season, commit to bringing God’s presence silently to your heart each day, even if only for a moment. You’ll find he hangs around a little longer the more he is invited. Consciously think about those times when stillness is easier found than others, and make your way on that path. “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:11)