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The Power of Silence in Prayer


Cardinal Robert Sarah has some extremely powerful insights into the value of silence as it relates to our spiritual life and our relationship with God.

sarah13131Cardinal Robert Sarah has some extremely powerful insights into the value of silence as it relates to our spiritual life and our relationship with God, which he has emphasized with the recent publication of his book The Power of Silence. I've tried to condense the most important of these insights into three key points.

1.  Silence is not an absence

Silence is typically defined as a negative.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines silence as:

"Complete absence of sound, the fact of state of abstaining from speech, the avoidance of mentioning or discussing something, or a short appointed period of time during which people stand still and do not speak as a sign of respect for a dead person or group of people".

— all negative definitions which focus on the absence of something.  However, in order to learn how to grow closer to God through silence, we have to redefine that word.

In the first book of Kings, we find the story of Elijah encountering God:

"He said, 'Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.' Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.  Then there came a voice to him that said, 'What are you doing here, Elijah?'" (1 Kings 19:11-13).

Elijah is described here as "hearing" the silence of God.  This is key.  Cardinal Sarah says:

"Silence is not an absence.  On the contrary, it is the manifestation of a presence, the most intense of all presences.  In modern society, silence has come into disrepute; this is the symptom of a serious, worrisome illness.  The real questions of life are posed in silence.  Our blood flows through our veins without making any noise, and we can hear our heartbeats only in silence" (paragraph 12).

He is bearing out the point of the Old Testament writer, which is that silence is not a negative, in particular that silence in which we encounter God.  Silence is a manifestation: when Elijah heard the sound of sheer silence, he knew that God was present and went forth to meet Him.

2.  Relationships mature in silence

Lesson 5 of CCO's Discovery faith study introduces the idea of the relationships diagram, which offers three levels of a human relationship — single, dating, and married — which we can use as an analogy for our relationship with God: single corresponds to no relationship with God, dating corresponds to incomplete commitment to God, and marriage corresponds to complete commitment to God.  The idea is that as we cultivate a relationship we move through these three stages; however, we usually neglect the possibility of using silence to help achieve that third stage.

Cardinal Sarah uses the image of a relationship to describe the power of silence in prayer:

"When we are lovers, we always notice the slightest gesture of the one whom we love.  It is the same with prayer.  If we are accustomed to praying often, we can grasp the meaning of God's silence.  There are signs that only two fiancés can understand.  The person of prayer is also the only one to grasp the silent signs of affection that God sends him" (paragraph 174).

Here the Cardinal makes the point that the most powerful communication between lovers is that which is not spoken, and makes the further analogy that the same thing applies to our relationship with God.  Venerable Fulton Sheen said the same thing in his book Three to Get Married: "Those who do not yet love one another deeply have need of words; those who deeply love, thrive on silences".

The Holy Family of Nazareth is a powerful example of the power of silence in our relationships, both with God and with the people around us.  It is a well-known fact that St Joseph never speaks in any of the Gospels; he was a humble man of action rather than one of excess words and noise.  St Matthew tells us that God speaks through His angel to Joseph four times, and each time Joseph does not speak either in the dream or when he wakes up.  He simply gets up and does God's will without question.  As for Mary, only St Luke and St John describe her speaking, and even then only a combined total of three times: when Gabriel visits her, when she and Joseph find the child Jesus in the Temple at Jerusalem, and finally at the wedding at Cana.  The other two evangelists do not record any of her words at all.  St Luke tells us that after the birth of Christ, "all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.  But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart" (Luke 2:18-19).  Mary does not waste words: instead, she internalizes them and reflects on them in her heart.

3.  Silence in prayer leads to intimacy with God

Scripture offers us a clue as to what our prayer, or conversation with God, should look like: Jesus instructs us to pray with the words, "Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Matthew 6:6) and we hear in the Psalms, "Be still, and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10).  From these passages we can see that private, silent prayer has a particular ability to open us up to a real conversation with God.  Cardinal Sarah echoes this when he says: "Solitude is the best state in which to hear God's silence" (paragraph 6).

Lesson 5 of CCO's Source faith study introduces the concept of docility to the Holy Spirit, which is defined there as "giving God permission to lead your life.  It is an attitude of openness and receptivity to God who, by forming and correcting us, teaches us to be more like Him", and uses Mary as the supreme example.  Cardinal Sarah reiterates the importance of docility when he says,

"When we are docile to the Holy Spirit, we are sure to be walking towards the truth because we are entirely subject to His inspirations" (paragraph 214).

From this, we know that in order to draw closer to God — to move from stage to stage of our relationship with Him — we must embrace the Holy Spirit and allow Him to direct our lives.  Although it may seem counter-intuitive given a conventional understanding of silence, we will only be able to achieve this docility to the Holy Spirit in silence, as Mary did.  Cardinal Sarah points out that

"The Holy Spirit has no face and no speech.  He is silent by His divine nature.  The Spirit asks in silence from all eternity.  God speaks, Christ speaks, but the Holy Spirit is always expressed through the prophets, saints and men of God" ( paragraph 211).

Personally, I've come to appreciate the power of silent prayer over the past few years, especially in the form of adoration before the Eucharist.  I used to not particularly care for adoration; I've always found unscripted prayer to be difficult and found it hard to come up with something to say in front of that monstrance.  However, over the last little while, I've realized that sometimes it's not necessary to have anything to say.  I'm guilty of defaulting to saying "Listen Lord, your servant is speaking", rather than "Speak Lord, your servant is listening" (1 Samuel 3:10) as Samuel did in the Old Testament.  Yes, prayer is a two-way street, but it is often better to let God speak first, and silent, private prayer is especially conducive to allowing Him to do that.  There is no better way to echo Samuel's words than to be silent and listen for God's voice.

This is J. Fraser Field, Founder of CERC. I hope you appreciated this piece. We curate these articles especially for believers like you.

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Stephen Walters. "The Power of Silence in Prayer." CCO Reads (March 29, 2018).

Reprinted with permission from the author, Stephen Walters and Catholic Christian Outreach (CCO).

The Author

waltersStephen Walters is a second-year aeronautical engineering student at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, ON. He is a member of the RMC Catholic group and leads CCO faith studies on the campus and is the grandson of J. Fraser Field, managing editor of the Catholic Education Resource Center. 

Copyright © 2018 Catholic Christian Outreach (CCO)

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