The March 25th issue of The Wall Street Journal printed an eye-catching article by Jen Murphy entitled, “CEO’S Secret to Decision-Making: Total Silence.” To reduce mounting stress and noise, internal and external, Khajak Keledjian, CEO of Intermix, went on a ten-day retreat of guided meditation in complete silence where television, reading, and even eye contact were forbidden. “I came out of that completely transformed,” he writes. “It gave me clarity, and clarity leads to great decisions.” Keledjian meditates twenty minutes every morning and sometimes in the evening, if the day has been unusually stressful.
Silence of the Universe
For millions of years, the cosmos has expanded in virtual silence. The seasons move in silence through the changing year. “Spring does not come from winter; it comes from the silence from which winter comes,” writes Max Picard, the German Swiss Catholic theologian. In silence, the spring buds approach blossoming to full form. Out of silence, beauty.
Contemporary speech tends to stress quantity. Chatter is verbal noise. It is destructive of the true nature and holiness of language which is essentially rooted in quality.
Gangsta Rap is verbal noise. The texts, laced with profanity, offend the dignity of the human person, especially women’s. In fact, the lyrics must be violent if one aspires to gangsta rap-hood. In a stunning turn of events, some Rappers are being prosecuted as criminals because their texts have occasioned violence, including death (NY Times, Mar. 26, 2014, Lorne Manly, “Legal Debate on Using Boastful Rap Lyrics as a Smoking Gun”). In anger and frustration, Gangsta Rappers cry out for help in their own sad lives.
The Silence of Prayer
If in doing yoga, CEO Keledjian finds clarity through silence, then what of the benefits that come from silent prayer? Our Catholic contemplative tradition offers far more than stress-reducing techniques, however helpful to prayer.
Silence is not the absence of noise but a phenomenon in itself, the context for prayer. The human person is an original silence, an original solitude, oriented to prayer, as Blessed John Paul II has noted. In prayer, when we speak to God without veneer and without ceremony, we feel free to say anything because prayer is primary language and primary desire.
The Mystical Tradition: Christian East and Latin West
Mystics neither levitate nor do they despise the world. They have good appetites. In the Christian East, mysticism forms an integral part of the Church’s liturgical life. It has more to do with active receptivity to God’s innovating activity than to a Pelagian approach to life. Western contemplation perceives God at work in all things as beauty, truth, and goodness with love as their crown. Like the mystical prayer of the Christian East, that of the Latin Church transforms those receptive to Divine Providence. St. Teresa of Avila’s mysticism did not exclude playful sarcasm: “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few.”
The Catholic mystical tradition reveals a mosaic of gemstones like Francis of Assisi, Thomas More, Ignatius Loyola, Peter Favre, and Francis Xavier, Edmund Campion, Philip Arundel and Margaret Clitherow, Matteo Ricci, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, Thérèse of Lisieux, Walter Ciszek, Mother Teresa, Charles de Foucauld, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Dorothy Day, Chiara Lubich, martyrs at Nagasaki and Auschwitz, in the Mideast and elsewhere. Is there one link unifying their outlook? “Pray as if all depends on God, and act as if all depends on you.” This is practical mysticism. Gerard Manley Hopkins describes today’s unnamed gemstones:
The just man justices
Kéeps gráce; that keeps all his going graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is—
Chríst–for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
St. Paul links fragrance to holiness: “For we are the aroma of Christ . . . . (2 Cor 2:14-16). Mahatma Gandhi too compares the fragrance of a rose with living the Gospel:
“Let your life speak to us even as the rose needs no speech but simply spreads its perfume. Even the blind who do not see the rose perceive its fragrance. That is the secret of the rose. But the Gospel that Jesus preached is much more subtle and fragrant than the Gospel of the rose. If the rose needs no agent, much less does the Gospel of Christ need any agent” (SK George, “Gandhi and the Church”).
One positive result of the encounter with non-Christian forms of meditation, especially Buddhism and Hinduism, has been to experience their respect for silence. It is regrettable, however, that today Catholics, largely ignorant of their own mystical traditions, have abandoned Catholicism, and even Christianity itself, to join other sects.
The Silence of Charity
The Christian teaching on love is all too familiar. Reciprocated love makes life easy. At times, the silence of charity is the best response to malice. In his darkest hours, Jesus prayed for his persecutors; he said they didn’t know what they were doing. It was their attitudes and actions he condemned. At the very end, he remained silent.
Recently, Pope Francis spoke up, and harshly so, about maligning others, rash judging and back-biting them. Gossip destroys a person’s character. We can never know what is really going on inside another person, and unless all the facts are known, the Gospel mandate is our best guide: “Judge not, and you will not be judged,” for there go I but for the grace of God. How will our youth learn this lesson?
The Silence of Suffering
Holy Week rivets the Church’s focus on the days that changed the world. There is no more fruitful way to celebrate and relive our redemption than through the liturgy. For the homebound, Catholic television makes for a worthy substitute. The liturgies at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. are unrivaled in beauty.
Pope St. Leo the Great notes that “true reverence for the Lord’s passion means fixing the eyes of our heart on Jesus crucified and recognizing in him our own humanity” (5th century).
A young Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. penned these words during his own personal crisis: “The Christian is not asked to swoon in the shadow, but to climb in the light of the Cross” (The Divine Milieu, 102ff).