Do You Have a Minute?
I’d like to have a moment of your time. I’m not asking for myself, but on behalf of the Lord Jesus.
You may have noticed that Jesus very often gives a teaching or tells a parable and then… falls silent. He often doesn’t explain or elaborate when you would expect Him to. He expects His hearers to interpret the silence and draw the right conclusion. He does not explain every parable nor, for that matter, in what sense it is possible, and necessary, to hate one’s parents and one’s own life in order to follow Him (cf. Lk 14:26). Instead, Jesus leaves it up to us to consider these things in the silence of our hearts and then let the Spirit guide us to the right answer.
God can speak as plainly to us as Jesus spoke to the people of Palestine, or as God spoke to the Prophets of old. But even the plain words of God are no good to us if we don’t receive them in a prayerful way.
The Lord mostly compels us inward to receive and ponder His word, and this means that our spiritual growth is a process of divine seed-planting, of allowing the seed to fall into the good soil of our hearts, and then letting God bring forth the fruit. This is what contemplation is all about and why our silence is a prerequisite for prayer that goes deeper than words. If the Lord spoke words to be heard but declined to explain everything, the message is clear: Dig beneath the words, look behind the actors of the parables, and peer into the saving truth directed at you, personally.
It has become countercultural even to do this much—to close our mouths, keep our feet still, set our fingers at rest, and just sit with the word of God.
There are approximately 70 million Catholics in the United States. About 39% of them fill the pews on Sundays. Why so few? Many reasons. But could it be that the other 61% don’t know how to listen to the voice of God? Could it be that they—and all of us—have been so culturally trained to stay on the surface of things that devoting time and effort to the word of God seems like an unjust demand, or like taxing a muscle you’ve never worked before?
It’s true: many people find that the most troubling thing about God is His silence. A gap opens between what we expect God to do and say and what He actually does and says. The Apostles wondered out loud why Jesus wouldn’t manifest Himself to the world. Martha and Mary wondered why the Lord had delayed after they had sent Him an urgent message: “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” They expected a quick, immediate response, and got what? Four full days of silence. And all the while they wondered: Where is He? Why hasn’t He at least sent a message? And of course, there are many other Biblical examples of God’s silence in the face of human confusion, especially in suffering: Abraham, Job, David.
Apart from Biblical examples, we have many personal examples where God’s silence is challenging if not inexplicable. We are looking for answers and the answers don’t seem to come, either quickly enough or clearly enough. It gets even harder for us who have come to expect quick communication. We are accustomed to seeing the important people of this world, and the not so important people, sending out their opinions, reactions, impressions, about everything. Everyone is expected to repudiate this or show their solidarity with that. And God is not so chatty.
But the saints unanimously tell us the same story: You must quiet yourself interiorly to discern the voice of God. God speaks at a frequency you can only hear if you’re tuned in to it. The saints will not compromise on this, and the spiritual life cannot grow without it. God can always get our attention by knocking us to the ground, but normally He respects our freedom by, instead, calling us inward to meet Him personally, face-to-face, where we are most human and most vulnerable. Often His silence is the uncomfortable spur that gets us to slow down, stop, set the parking brake, and think.
About a thousand years ago, St Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) addressed our very contemporary (and perennial) tendency to stay topside and avoid the deeper reaches of contact with the Lord:
Insignificant man, escape from your everyday business for a short while, hide for a moment from your restless thoughts. Break off from your cares and troubles and be less concerned about your tasks and labors. Make a little time for God and rest a while in him.
We have a God who tells us to do things like “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” and “consider the lilies of the field.” But who has time to do either? Or who has time to consider the lilies of the field, in silence, without taking pictures of the lilies of the field, without making a video of oneself considering the lilies of field? Even our moments of solitude and contemplation can become occasions of exhibition, instead of moments of intimate contact with our God.
Monsignor Romano Guardini (1885-1968) once characterized the holy person as one who knows how to find God’s message written into everyday life. Those, he says, who demand no miracles, nothing out of the ordinary, but are sensitive to God’s gentle touch—which comes quietly, without disturbing our freedom, and leads to “peaceful resolve within the heart.” They are able to find God’s message “in the gospel for the day, or even from the sermons of preachers with no message in particular, or in the happenings of everyday life which always end up the same way: work and rest, anxiety—and then again some kind of success, some joy, an encounter, and a sorrow. Blessed are they who can see the Lord in all these things!”
In the open space between you and the Lord called silence, you will find not emptiness, not a vacuum, but a rich harvest of blessing.