These are the opening words of a prose poem titled “Desiderata” (“Desired Things”) that was popular in the 1960s and ‘70s. Although it was written during the economic boom of the Roaring Twenties and revived in the turbulent ‘60s, the sentiment seems appropriate to our own time. Perhaps that is because there is so little silence in our world. Most of us are aware of missing silence and stillness in our noisy lives, and recently scientists have begun to identify the long-term consequences of the absence of silence. Aside from obvious physical damage to our hearing, the scarcity of peace and quiet represents a threat to our psychological health and our relationships with others. Noise is a stressor, evoking physiological stress responses that can lead to cardiovascular disease and other stress-related ailments. Hearing does not “shut off” when we sleep. Thus noise can interrupt sleep, triggering emotional and social problems associated with sleep deprivation such as impairment of concentration and learning, and increased incidence of aggressive and hostile behavior. Noise is not only annoying; it can also be hazardous to our health.
Silence is essential to our spiritual well-being. We need silence to help us clear away the mental clutter of earthly concerns so that we are able to focus on our relationship with God and his world. Recall that the prophet Elijah at a time of desperate need (1 Kings 19) went to meet God at Mount Horeb, but did not find him in wind so strong that it split mountains, nor in earthquake, nor in fire. After the fire came “a sound of sheer silence” (verse 12). That was when the Lord spoke to Elijah, to reassure and direct him. Searching for God in the sound and fury of nature’s power was futile. Listening in the silence led Elijah to God.
Like Elijah, we need to find ways to put aside strong winds, earthquakes, and fires, as well as the myriad other distractions of contemporary life in order to make space for silence. We need to set aside time and find protected places where the quiet won’t be swallowed up in noise and activity. It isn’t easy, and it gets ever more difficult as the pace of life accelerates in seasons of high activity – such as prior to Christmas. Making room for silence can be a considerable challenge, but be assured that the effort is worthwhile. Finding a time and location for your own practice of silence will provide immediate benefits.
The peace of silence comes to a faithful heart and an expectant mind, emptied of anxieties and ready to perceive the voice of God. In silence, we can detect the signs of God in our world and perceive how he wants us to contribute to that work. In silence, we can hear the word of God and learn to understand and internalize it. In silence we can anticipate the promised things to come, and be strengthened by hope.
The familiar French hymn, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” captures the awe of encountering the holy in the envelope of silence, and was the inspiration for the set of reflections that follows.
LET ALL MORTAL FLESH KEEP SILENCE
Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in his hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.
King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth he stood,
Lord of lords in human vesture,
in the Body and the Blood
he will give to all the faithful
his own self for heavenly food.
Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of Light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the powers of hell may vanish
as the darkness clears away.
At his feet the six-winged seraph;
cherubim with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the Presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry,
Alleluia, Lord Most High!”
— Words: Liturgy of Saint James, 5th century; trans.
Gerald Moultrie, 1864; Hymn Tune: Picardy – French carol
Advent is a season of anticipation. In our secular world today, the focus of anticipation is the gifts that will be given and received and the festivities in which people will participate. Jesus, however, spoke of anticipation in terms of signs in nature, distress among the nations, and people paralyzed by fear and foreboding: no jolly holidays! He was speaking of the end times, the apocalypse, when this world would pass away and God’s eternal kingdom would come to earth. The end times were also the time of judgment, which explains the fear: One did not know whether he would be among the favored ones of God or if he would be cast out into the darkness where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth. It would either be wonderful or terrible. Nothing could evoke greater dread than the thought of being on the wrong side at the end times.
But Jesus’ message about the end times had a different tone. He told the people to stand and raise their heads high, rather than cowering in fear when the end was in sight, because it would signal the time of their redemption rather than their condemnation. The hymn describes Christ our God descending to earth, the Light of Light that vanquishes the darkness and powers of hell. The end times mean final victory over all evil and death.
It seems that hardly a week goes by when the world is not reeling in the aftermath of brutal, bloody attacks on civilians in a variety of venues and all around the globe. Hundreds of people are killed and injured. Each episode is followed by news of other attacks averted by intelligence and the astute actions of security personnel. The climate of shock and horror is pervasive, because every person alive is a potential victim in a war of terror. Has God forgotten his creation? Has he abandoned us to the forces of darkness?
It seems that now more than ever we need to return and rely on the central truth of our faith, that Jesus Christ has conquered sin and death by his earthly life, death and resurrection. He has accomplished our redemption from sin and reconciliation with God. There is no uncertainty: It is finished. God’s power still reigns and he is still working out his purpose whether or not we know what the purpose is, or can see him at work. Does the conviction of these things make the threats less frightening? Probably not in the short term. But it does broaden the perspective, and reminds us that the outcome of this struggle with evil is not in doubt. The side of good wins in the end. Spending time in quiet and stillness is the best way to put ourselves in mind of that reassuring truth. In silence we can remember why Jesus came to earth so long ago, and why he will return. In silence we can recall that, like the Jews of Jesus’ day, we don’t know exactly when that return will be. So we must watch.
Questions for Personal Reflection
What time(s) will I set aside for silence, and in what location(s)?
When I have spent time in silence in the past, what have the experiences been like?