When I was a student of philosophy, we had a holy and wise Master of Students, Fr. Luis López de las Heras. He gave us a lecture every Saturday morning. One lecture that lingered in my mind for life was his talk on silence, a silence he practiced in his humble Dominican life. Later on, I was moved by one of my favorite songs, “The Sound of Silence” of Simon and Garfunkel: the singers, the song, and the lyrics! It is enchanting. I love its title!

As human beings, as Christians in particular, we need to hear and listen to the sound of silence through our life. We are invaded, bombarded today by too many words, too many noises… Silence is a great value and virtue in all religions and faiths. The Church “must discover the power of silence” (Cardinal Luis Antonio de Tagle).

Silence is the other word. After the word, preacher Lacordaire says, silence is the second power in the world. Word and silence are two ways of speaking: like the two eyes of the face of life, or the two wings of a bird, or two aspects of communication, or the two sides of talking. Both words complement each other. “We all need the use of words, but to use them with power we all need to be silent” (John Main).

     I invite you to listen with me to words on the awesome sound of silence – not the sound of bad silence, but of good, virtuous silence.  There is, indeed, bad silence, like the silence that does not utter words when it should speak: “I believed so I spoke; we also believe so we speak” We also believe, and so we speak” (II Cor 4:13). The Lord says to Paul: “Do not be afraid, go on speaking and do not be silenced, for I am with you” (Acts 18:9-10). The apostles Peter and John were asked by the Jewish authorities to keep quiet about the Crucified and Risen Lord. Their answer: We have to obey God, rather than men; “we cannot stop proclaiming what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:18-20.

Leo XIII says that at times we ought not to be silent, we have to speak, as when he spoke powerfully of the poverty of workers at the end of the 19th century: “By keeping silent we would seem to neglect the duty incumbent on us” (Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum). The Christian is asked by his humanity and faith to speak on behalf of those who have no voice: children, women, the poor, the elderly, the migrants, and the marginalized. Money may force bad silence: “When money talks, the truth is silent” (Chinese Proverb). Nowadays, moreover, it is not hard to find people who do not talk because speaking is not “politically correct.”

Speaking of silence without adjectives means usually good, positive, healthy and holy silence. We need silence, good silence, not for the sake of silence, but as a way to know ourselves more deeply, to listen to God and his creation, to Jesus, the Word of God, to our own hearts, and to all women and men – all creatures and children of God.   

Silence is needed to hear the wordless voice of our heart. “Your hearts know in silence the secrets of the days and the nights” (Kahlil Gibran). Silence is needed to listen to God, “to listen to the Voice: “I will keep silent and let God speak within” (Meister Eckhart).  “Speak, Lord, your servant listens.” Like to the prophet Elijah, God speaks to us not in the hurricane, not in the earthquake, not in the fire; God talks to us in a light murmuring sound, in “a sound of sheer silence” (Cf. I Kgs 19:11-13). To hear God’s silent voice, our senses, our hearts must be silent: “I hold myself in quiet and silence, like a little child in his mother’s arms, like a little child, so I keep myself” (Ps 131:2).

Silence is needed to listen to God’s creation – to the stars, the ocean, the wind, the flowers, the birds. In his Encyclical letter Laudato Si’ (2015), Pope Francis invites us to contemplate God’s creation and to listen to its silent voice. He quotes St. John Paul II: “For the believer, to contemplate creation is to hear a message, to listen to a paradoxical and silent voice” (Laudate Si’ 85).

Silence is also needed to listen to others. Job tells his talkative friends: “If you would only keep silent that would be your wisdom” (Job 13:5). Pope Francis speaks of the importance of learning the art of listening, “which is more than simply hearing” and implies “an openness of heart.” He recommends “respectful and compassionate listening” (Evangelii Gaudium 171). Unfortunately, some – if not many of us – do not listen to others but just wait for them to finish their talking and continue with ours: “People talking without speaking; people hearing without listening…” (The Sound of Silence). We keep silent when our word will be hurtful to the other, or boastful or unkind. Then, as my father used to say, “La mejor palabra es la que está por decir” (the best word is the one not yet spoken).  The great mystic St. John of the Cross advises silence when facing the lives of others: “Great wisdom is to keep silent and not to look at sayings, deeds or the lives of others” (Sayings of Light and Love).

We need silence to speak the saving word. In his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini (2010), Pope Benedict XVI recommends that the People of God be educated on the value of silence, which is needed to speak of and listen to the word. The word, in fact, “can only be spoken and heard in silence, outward and inward”; “the great patristic tradition teaches us that the mysteries of Christ all involve silence” (VD 66). The liturgy speaks of “sacred silence,” which is recommended in the Eucharist, and in the recitation of the Psalms. Pauses of silence are also recommended when praying the Rosary, particularly at the beginning of each mystery.

The saints invite us to cultivate good silence in our lives. They practice the silence and silent prayer of Jesus. Like Saint Joseph, who feeling the hand of God accepts silently the motherhood of Mary and the mysterious life of Jesus (cf. Mt 1:24). He does not say a word. He just talks by the good deeds of his daily life attuned to God’s will. Like the Virgin Mary, the greatest saint, who kept all the things happening around Jesus in her heart (Lk 2:51): in her, “all was space for the Beloved and silence to listen” (Bruno Forte).

We are asked to be silent before God, who is usually silent when we talk with him. On the Cross, Jesus faced the silence of God, too. “Why have you abandoned me?” Jesus cried out from the cross. At times, we ask God: Why have you abandoned me? God’s answer was and is silence. The silence of God, yesterday and today in the midst of darkness, of desolation, of injustices and wars is a mysterious silence unveiled somehow in his love: “God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son” (Jn 3:16). Why is the good Lord silent when we suffer? “God does not want our suffering; He is present in a silent way” (E. Schillebeeckx). Why is God silent? St. John of the Cross says that God “in giving us his Son, his only Word, God spoke everything to us at once in this sole Word – and He has no more to say.”

On Good Friday, Jesus is silent: his serene silence to the many questions of Pilate and Herod; his calm silence to the cry of the people: “Crucify him! Crucify him!” His humble silence while he is horribly scourged at the pillar. Jesus is patiently silent through his whole passion; at times, he pronounces a few words which dramatize his talking silence. Jesus, the Suffering Servant of Yahweh “never opened his mouth, like a lamb led to the slaughter-house, like a sheep dumb before the shearers, he never opened his mouth” (Is 53:7; cf. Acts 8:32). Yes, “like a silent lamb, but in reality, instead of a lamb we have a man, and in the man, Christ that contains everything” (Meliton de Sardis).

Word and silence are ordered to a third word: love, which is silently witnessed in good deeds. “A Christian knows when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and to let love alone speak” (Benedict XVI). The strongest voice of silence is silent love: “The language God hears best is silent love” (St. John of the Cross). Silent love is a most powerful sound: the sound of silence!