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Prayer as Listening
“The Lord is in His holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before Him.” ~Habakkuk 2:20
Learning to wait before the Word is true prayer. It is there in sanctified quietness that your strength is renewed and you will mount up on eagle’s wings.
Such silence is not an absence, it is a fullness. The Lord comes near in hushed perfection. We put our hands upon our mouths. Our chattering is stilled because God is in the heavens and we breathe through our nostrils. We listen intently as the Divine Voice addresses us from the Sacred Page, that bush lit with the searing flame of Holy Discourse. In this hallowed conversation, our greatest part is to offer the unqualified “Amen” of our souls. Prayer at its deepest pitch is silence before the Speaking God.
As we kneel, the Father’s words from Tabor’s lofty crag should ring loud in our ears, “This is my beloved Son: Hear ye Him.” But attending to His voice has become all the more difficult in a time when we are bombarded with ceaseless noise from every corner. To say little of the clamoring voices in our own heads and hearts that we have exerted minimal effort to discipline. This signals all the more reason to revive the dying art of silence.
Some time ago, I was struck by these observations from Cardinal Sarah,
Our world no longer hears God because it is constantly speaking, at a devastating speed and volume, in order to say nothing. Modern civilization does not know how to be quiet. It holds forth in an unending monologue. Postmodern society rejects the past and looks at the present as a cheap consumer object; it pictures the future in terms of an almost obsessive progress. Its dream, which has become a sad reality, will have been to lock silence away in a damp, dark dungeon. Thus there is a dictatorship of speech, a dictatorship of verbal emphasis. In this theater of shadows, nothing is left but a purulent wound of mechanical words, without perspective, without truth, and without foundation. Quite often “truth” is nothing more than the pure and misleading creation of the media, corroborated by fabricated images and testimonies. When that happens, the word of God fades away, inaccessible and inaudible. Postmodernity is an ongoing offense and aggression against the divine silence. From morning to evening, from evening to morning, silence no longer has any place at all; the noise tries to prevent God himself from speaking. In this hell of noise, man disintegrates and is lost; he is broken up into countless worries, fantasies, and fears. In order to get out of these depressing tunnels, he desperately awaits noise so that it will bring him a few consolations. Noise is a deceptive, addictive, and false tranquilizer. The tragedy of our world is never better summed up than in the fury of senseless noise that stubbornly hates silence. This age detests the things that silence brings us to: encounter, wonder, and kneeling before God. 1
We are afraid to sit in silence and be alone with our thoughts for fear of what we might find there. Far better, we think, to be anesthetized by noise than to feel the uneasiness that comes from learning we are broken, needy, helpless, sinful. We are too terrified to turn off the television and the computer and the cell phone in order to retreat into the quiet for fear of meeting God there. Racket is our refuge from repentance. The cacophonous deluge into which we have submerged our lives has become the place in which we hide from our own souls. And we have sewn fig leaves of busyness in an attempt to divert our Maker’s gaze from our spiritual nakedness.
Prayer is a dangerous. The one who embarks to follow Christ into the wild country of solitude scarcely comes away unscathed. Such a person doesn’t rise with his Lord from Joseph’s tomb without a few scars inflicted along the way. Prayer is dangerous because we are called into the waste places to be alone with Christ. Into the wilderness of temptation where nothing save the Word can aid us. Into Gethsemane where Jesus bids us to watch and pray, far from the madding crowd. To Gabbatha where we are tried. To Golgotha where we are unmanned, unmade and made new men. Prayer is dangerous because it is where we go to die with Christ.
In all of this Christ is teaching us the lessons He himself learned in the days of His flesh. Christ lived for thirty years in silence. In these silent years He was perfecting holiness in the fear of God. Having learned to grow in God in stillness, God tore open the heavens on the day of His baptism in order to declare His own approbation, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”
The story of how the Word of God came to redeem man begins not with speech but with silence. Anglican bishop Lancelot Andrewes seized upon this paradox of the Infinite becoming and infant—verbum infans, the Latin infans meaning ‘without speech’—when he exclaimed with astonishment, “The Word without a word!”
T.S. Eliot, as was his habit, borrowed and further developed this phrase from his favorite of the Anglican divines in Ash Wednesday.
If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the spoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in the darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the center of the silent Word.
Contrast this with Eliot’s Hollow Men.
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar.
Against the “dried voices” and conspiratorial “whispers” and “meaningless” words like “wind in dry grass” comes the wordless Word. It is though Eliot’s husk-like men had crawled with rat’s feet in some other dry cellar and stumbled upon a manger. Expecting to find it, like everything else, empty; founds instead verbum infans speaking stability and coherence, speaking salvation. Thus the wordless Word becomes the unmovable axis at the center of the turning world without whose presence there would be no cohesion at all. “…the unstilled world still whirled / About the center of the silent Word.”
Even at yonder cross the Word saves us in silence. As a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so He opened not His mouth. Our Lord calls us to follow Him in just this way too. To be swift to hear, slow to speak. To enter into our closet and shut the door. To be with Christ alone.
This may mean that we need to limit our “screen time.” It may require that we disengage from an overcrowded schedule. It certainly means that we resist the onslaught of noise that constantly vies for every moment of our attention. At the very least, it will involve an active decision on our part to steal away to a solitary place with God. Then our seasons of prayer will be the fulfillment of the Transfiguration blessing in our own lives: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased; Hear ye Him…And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only.”
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The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise Robert Cardinal Sarah (Ignatius Press, 2017)