Ever wish you were alone for an evening? That you could just stop the maelstrom in your head and just relax? In this hectic world, wouldn't a walk by the ocean in the late afternoon when crowds begin to thin out, be just the thing to relax you? Or maybe a walk in the woods?
Yes, I've been there, done that. Long before retirement I worked for an International airline, working long, strenuous hours, listening to unkind people at airline counters, people whose personal panic due to business or family stress was so great that they needed a scapegoat and often that scapegoat was the poor airline ticket agent. People like that exist all over the world. They come in all cultures and languages. And why shouldn't they? They are all human. Humans have a breaking point and when the pressure is too intense, they say things they probably don't mean to people they don't even know. I've done it myself, to others. It is then that time is needed to regenerate, to let God in on your problem, and to pray. It is time to retreat, to step back, to find some moments of silence.
Silence is a great healer. In Eccl. 3:2-9, there is a time for everything. "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace."
If we try to do everything at once, we're going to burst. A person's mind, advanced as it is, and a wonderful gift of God, still has its limitations. Not everyone is super organized, time driven, goal oriented. Those who are not, suffer in the corporate environment of today. You add to that mix the socializing, business lunches, dinners, and then you will see that there is little time for silence, the silence we need to sort it all out. The silence we need to find out what it all means. The silence we need to hear the voice of God!
Sometimes when we do finally hear the voice of God, and listen, we hear Him calling. We know He searches us out. He loves us so deeply and we never realized it. I'm involved in prison ministry. Inmates have lots of time on their hands and if they are wise, they use that time well. Whenever I talk with people there, I begin to realize that they know how much God loves them, because they listened to that still voice of God. They have big aspirations about using that newfound relationship with Jesus as a platform from which to teach others. Their long sentences in a very hostile environment often prevent that from happening.
People search for silence, for order. That and an immense love of God and for God, brings people to join monastic orders. There is the silence which will become your friend to increase and intensify that relationship with Jesus, with Mary and all the Saints. But monastic life is tough. It takes real men and women, strong people, to succeed. It takes people who have a high self-esteem and the maturity to carry out such a mission in the long term and who are able to stick it out. I am particularly thinking of monastic orders such as the Trappists, the Cistercians, Benedictines (not all Benedictines are cloistered monks), and the like. That's a vocation of immense love. These people know how to handle silence and to use it well.
By the way, I was a cloistered monk from 1998 to 2002 (total almost 5 years) with two years prior to that in religious life but not cloistered. There were insuffient monks in this Order and the Bishop closed us down. This was unfortunate, since I was too old to begin again in a different cloistered community. I was convinced that is where God wanted me to be. Apparently not! The year 2002 was also a year of great upheaval in the Church with scandals etc., fortunately those were not an issue in my situation.
I returned to the OFS (Secular Franciscan Order). To be honest, I miss the silence as there are way too many distractions even living alone. I do my best to stay close to Our Lord in deed and in prayer, and that's about as well as we all try to do.
About seven years ago, I was able to participate in a self-directed retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemane, of the Trappists in Kentucky. It was an unforgettable experience but probably for all the wrong reasons. I found that type of monastic life very strenuous because that particular week in January, it was bone cold. Temperatures hovered between zero and eight degrees Fahrenheit, and of course, it was much colder when the wind blew. We were directed to take long walks in the countryside to get some exercise. I remember one morning that it was bitter out there and I felt totally alone. But in my silence and the total silence around me, I prayed the Our Father (with teeth shattering) … and really thought about the words. These are words from the lips of Jesus, himself! It was His prayer to His Father, God the Father. Somehow after that, my anxiety about the cold was forgotten. Silence makes the hidden stand out. Silence brings the voice of Jesus and we hear Him and bask in His Presence.
What do the rest of us know about silence? At Holy Mass, the priest often sits down after Holy Communion to make a silent Thanksgiving. We should too, before we head out into the world. When he sits there just a bit longer than he normally does, people in the congregation begin to fidget. It wouldn't surprise me if one of these days, they'd snap their fingers... well, probably not. We are so time-oriented; don't we have one extra moment of silence for Jesus?
Our response to God is so limited, so uninterested sometimes. He ought to be at the center of our lives, but He usually isn't. We run around every day for this cause or that project but do we make time for God? I don't know about you, but I know I need to be with Him more often. What would Jesus do? What should I do to emulate Him? Does His example show in my actions? Well, not always.
Saint Francis also did well with silence. If he did not possess an interior silence, he would have never talked to the birds! That simply wouldn’t have happened. It was in the interior silence of his soul that Francis found that unique relationship with Jesus where Francis was allowed to suffer the wounds of Christ on his hands, feet and side. Those were not decorations, they were real, bleeding wounds and there was no question that they hurt terribly, but Francis was not one to complain. But even Francis had his lighter moments with his brother friars.
Something just crossed my mind (as I review this reflection in 2014) - there are special moments in nature (e.g. out of doors), when there is a natural silence and animals are quiet and more approachable. That is the time just after a real dense fog. That's of course not a good place to be in a car, but I love walking on a field path in fog, and have done so in Europe and in USA on vacations or at retreats. The aforementioned Trappists come to mind again. In fog or in snow, birds, deer, and other critters sort of slow down. They probably are disoriented. I've stood 5-6 feet away from a deer in fog and we all stood still and contemplated each other, me trying to be perfectly still as I enjoyed their unique company. Birds too, I remember years and years ago when I was on an small island in the fog in the breeding season and I heard some rustling in the grass, not far from where I stood, and in my amazement saw 2-3 tiny birds hatch, fluff their tiny feathers and flew off all within a few minutes. It was miraculous and I will never forget it. This was a nest of a Ruddy Turnstone, a shorebird that is known to fledge very quickly after hatching. Because of the fog, I was able to approach the nest without spooking the birds. And even though this was 50+ years ago, I remember thanking God for the gift of this delicate balance of nature.
In your spiritual life, that is, if you work at having a spiritual life, it is necessary to not think about God all the time, but to spend some time in silence. Your prayer life intertwines in and out of everything you do. We feel God's presence in our lives when we accept Him as a partner in everything we undertake and especially if we know that without His presence there's little that will go right.
When you feel isolated, alone, even bored, turn to Him and let Him in. You will not feel isolated, bored or alone anymore. Being bored or idle is the devil's head cushion. The devil takes a hold of us when we feel vulnerable and hurt. That's the time to dwell on the goodness of God and to tell the devil to go back where he belongs. Never, ever, muddle the differences between right and wrong. Never say "God understands me" and then do what is wrong. God does not condone evil. He only wishes happiness for us. God's dearest wish is that we will be spending all eternity with Him. We can, you know, if we listen to His Word and then act on that Word. Follow the teaching of Jesus Christ. Immerse yourself in things that are good. Shun evil, do not be tempted by it. It will only bring ruin.
We just celebrated the Solemnity of St. Joseph (when I wrote this the first time), that most diligent protector of the infant Jesus and His mother, Mary. We refer to Jesus, Mary and Joseph, as the Holy Family. They had family values that were powerful. They loved one another in a way many families don't. I pray for families that are torn apart by crime, drugs, abuse, incest, strife, etc., where Mom and Dad do not talk anymore, but instead scream at each other. Where the kids cower under the strain of hearing Mom and Dad enact World War III in their homes. Children are affected for life under those conditions. Many of the inmates I referred to earlier come from broken homes. They found no love when they needed it most as youngsters. They have no love now. It is really, really sad.
I think it would be just as bad living in a family where Mom decided on abortion for one of my siblings. That's the most tragic thing that can happen to a family. Abortion is a total cessation of love. It is hard to fathom that God would still love a mother who would do that to one of her offspring, but yes, God loves even the sinner. He doesn't love the sin. If you are in this situation, use the silent moments in your life to beg God's pardon. It's a long road back to happiness, but it can be done. Healing is possible for anyone who asks.
Silence. For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him. He only, is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. (Ps. 62); and Ps. 46: 10 - "Be still, and know that I am God. I am exalted among the nations; I am exalted in the earth!" A moment of silence, please, for Jesus Our Lord!
May He richly bless you this and every day!
Fred S. Schaeffer, OFS
February 13, 2014
(First written in April 2004, Canticle; re-edited 2014)