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3 Reasons to recover silence

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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 01/06/20

It's a missing discipline in our culture of distraction

If you were offered a weekend-long retreat, in a beautiful place, with a wise spiritual director, all expenses paid, would you go? What if there were the stipulation that you must keep silence the whole time? No talking (except with your spiritual director), no music, no electronic devices of any kind? Would that make the retreat more or less appealing to you?

In my experience, one reliable way to induce panic, nausea, or worse among college students is to expect them to keep a disciplined silence, up to and including fasting from electronic devices. “I just wouldn’t know what to do with myself!” was a common complaint. In a certain sense, that is not entirely their fault. They have been raised in an environment of nearly constant noise and electronic stimulation.

In a restaurant, bar, coffee shop or commercial venue, for example, we may be surrounded by music. In some places, especially restaurants and bars, the music is so loud as to preclude conversation. Who thought that was a good idea? One of my cherished discoveries within the last 12 months is a coffee shop that distinguishes itself not only by its good food and coffee at good prices, but especially by its silence. I can sit there and hear myself think. I can read without distraction. I can have a conversation. Why hasn’t this practice become more popular?

A priest I know told me about a college student he had worked with—let’s call her “Chattie.”

According to him, Chattie could not keep silence if her life depended on it. In every social encounter, she had to have the final word, the first word, and nearly every other word in between. When all was said and done, she had more to say. My friend challenged Chattie: “This summer, whenever you are with a group of friends, do not speak until everyone else in the group speaks first.” She protested as vigorously as if he had asked her to hold her breath the whole time. Years later, she joined a contemplative community. Before leaving for the monastery, she wrote a multi-page email blast to all of her friends about the value of silence. She followed the email with a similar post on all of her social media accounts. Apparently, she had discovered an awful lot about silence that just had to be said. The monastery sent her home two weeks later—she could not observe silence.

What’s the big deal about silence? Why do so many people avoid it? Why do so many religious communities and spiritual masters value it so highly? And why should people who will never live in a cloister give any thought to silence at all?

Let’s take a look at three religious motivations for silence, and then consider a few more that are becoming more and more necessary in our culture of constant electronic distraction.

  1. As an aid to prayer: Monasteries and the Desert Fathers insist that an unbridled tongue weakens the mind and dissipates the energy of the soul—rendering the individual nearly incapable of the heart-to-heart prayer that is an indispensable ingredient for progress in the spiritual life. 
  2. As a protection from evil: Thomas a Kempis quotes approvingly Seneca of Ancient Rome that, “As often as I have been amongst men, I have returned less a man.” If you think that idle chatter does not lead to evil, then you have not been following the comments section of most social media.
  3. Penitential restraint: To refrain from speech for much time requires great reserves of self-control, a priceless power that only comes from frequent and prolonged practice. The struggle not to blurt out one’s unguarded thoughts (what I call “The Cult of Blurt” most people nowadays know as “Twitter”) can be a way of making amends for all the hurtful and scandalous things we have said.

There’s ample research available that makes a strong case for the harmful effects of the constant distraction and hyper-stimulation that comes to us now through our electronic devices. These devices immerse us in a culture of clamor and commotion that we were not made for—a culture that does physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual harm, especially to our young people. We need to establish habits of “electronic fasting,” and we need to rediscover the virtues of solitude, stillness and silence. It’s still not too late to make a few more New Year’s Resolutions. Let’s make an objective survey of our lives, as well as an honest examination of conscience. Let’s plan to cultivate the kind of quiet that will allow us to reconnect to our best selves and to God.

When I write next, I will speak of a Christian way of making use of time. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

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