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.