When I was in college, I met a chain-smoking Franciscan priest who changed my life. He was a chaplain at my university and, like all Franciscans, had taken a vow of poverty. He was smart and compassionate, and I could not doubt his commitment to the marginalized.
Soon after I graduated, passionate about justice and wanting to make a difference in the world, I ran a church-based group that helped support undocumented immigrants and provided tutoring to their kids. I ran into the friar and we caught up.
He looked at me and said matter-of-factly, “You do not have the life of prayer and silence necessary to sustain the work you are doing.” I was a little insulted. What the hell did he know? But over the course of the next two years, he was proved right. I simply did not have the spiritual rhythms and practices to cultivate the wisdom, humility, thoughtfulness and rest my work required. I burned out quickly.
I still constantly feel a tension between the call to active engagement with a world in need and the call to silence and stillness.
In the sixth century, Gregory the Great said that we must move from “the secrecy of inward meditation” to “the wide space of active life,” but then quickly return to “the bosom of contemplation” because we will “too speedily freeze” if we do not “return with anxious earnestness to the fire of contemplation.” So, clearly, this tension I feel isn’t new. But then again, Gregory the Great couldn’t tweet.
For me, the internet has made this tension much more pronounced, particularly when it comes to the place of public advocacy and debate. We now have the ability through social media to advocate for issues and causes every moment of the day. Every moment we don’t is now an intentional choice. “Your silence is deafening” can be used to shame anyone who isn’t glued to the screen speaking out on any and every issue.
In addition, social media allows us to be aware of daily injustices all over the world. The amount of important and worthy causes that call for our attention feels endless. If we neglect any of them, is our silence deafening?
Advocacy in support of the oppressed, the poor, the marginalized and the pursuit of peace requires action. Particularly in a democracy, we have a responsibility to raise our voices to call for a more just and compassionate society for all people.
But the practices of silence, contemplation and stillness are essential disciplines in Christian spirituality. If you survey the advice of the saints from the past two millenniums, a consistent piece of advice emerges: Shut up. Be still.
In the fourth century, the Syrian poet Ephrem wrote, “Let your silence speak/to one who listens to you; with silent mouth.” The 16th-century Spanish Catholic mystic St. John of the Cross said, “What we need most in order to make progress is to be silent before this great God.” Mother Teresa said, “We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence.”
Voices of the church — across racial, ethnic, denominational, national and temporal bounds — urge us to silence and stillness. So, is silence violence or the very way to know God? How do we find the right balance between the need to work for change in the world and the need to cultivate a rich interior life of prayer and stillness? Is “balance” even what we are after since the pursuit of both justice and the contemplative life must be radical, wholehearted and countercultural?
How do we know when to speak up and when to withdraw? As a privileged person, how do I not turn a blind eye to the cause of justice but also not lose myself in a fog of screens, noise and distraction? There are no simple answers here. We need to examine ourselves to see if our silence and stillness grows from fear or apathy or if it is the holy silence of wisdom. But the witness of the church is that action must grow from a deep well of silence and prayer.
The literature scholar Alan Jacobs argues that we need to embrace “not a permanent silence, but a refusal to speak at the frantic pace set by social media.” He calls silence “the first option — the preferential option for the poor in spirit, you might say; silence as a form of patience, a form of reflection, a form of prayer.”
Jesus actively sought justice. His first public proclamation was that he came to “preach the good news to the poor” and “proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:16-19). Here, at the beginning of his public ministry, he spelled out that he was not just concerned with personal piety but also with the renewal of the social order and, indeed, the world.
But as one who tends toward action and activity, I am often shocked when reading the gospels by how much time Jesus spends not calling out injustice or touching lepers. He spent the first 30 years of his life in relative obscurity, learning a trade, living quietly. In the gospels, almost as soon as he is baptized and we think things will finally get going, he drops off the radar for 40 days, nearly silent in the desert.
Throughout his ministry, this man who could heal, who could preach, who was himself a prophet, ran from crowds and disappeared again and again to pray alone. When he spoke out against evil, he did so within a context of a life punctuated by long, intentional silences.
In “The Practices of Christian Preaching,” the theologian Jared Alcántara writes that we must take up both “active” practices of seeking justice and compassion, and “receptive” practices of discernment and silence. If we fail to engage in active practices, Alcántara says, “we risk becoming distant, aloof, and detached from the world around us.” But he also says, “if we fail to engage in receptive practices, we risk becoming distant from ourselves, offering living water to others while we die of thirst.” This is the pattern we see in the life of Jesus — a pattern of intentionally withdrawing into silence and just as intentionally returning to his public ministry.
The Christian faith tells us that we get the great privilege of participating in God’s work and renewal of all the world, but it also reminds us that ultimately, as the author Tyler Wigg-Stevenson has said, “the world is not ours to save.” Contemplative silence and prayer becomes the means by which we learn the limits of words and action, and where we learn to take up the right words and actions. It’s where we learn to slow down and then to work again at the mysterious pace of the Holy Spirit.
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