This Lent, Try a Little Silence
by David Gibson
A novel reason to “book” a little time in Lent for silence was proposed in a Feb. 2 editorial by Joe Towalski, a Catholic journalist in the Midwest.
His thinking was not just that silence allows people to quiet down or withdraw into some much-needed solitude and reflection. What captured my attention was his conviction that silence is golden in part because it creates an opportunity to listen and draw closer to people we care about.
Towalski is editor of The Catholic Spirit newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Silence, “coupled with attentive listening,” can help people deepen relationships with others they encounter every day in their “families, workplaces and communities,” he wrote. Of course, “silencing our voices and our minds” also can help “broaden our awareness” of God’s presence.
Silence as Essential to Communication
In viewing silence as “an essential part of communication,” Towalski acknowledged that this “seems at first to be a contradiction.” Aren’t words what we need for communicating with others?
It might surprise you to know that Towalski drew inspiration for this approach to silence from Pope Benedict XVI’s 2012 message for the World Day of Communications, observed May 20 this year in most dioceses. “Silence is an integral element of communication,” the pope said.
He explained that with silence, a “space is created for mutual listening, and deeper human relationships become possible.” By growing silent, “we allow the other person to speak” and, at the same time, “avoid being tied simply to our own words and ideas without them being adequately tested.”
It often is seen that when people “are in love” their “most authentic communication” takes place in silence – in “gestures, facial expressions and body language,” Pope Benedict noted. These are “signs by which they reveal themselves to each other.”
Silence is a “powerful mode of expression,” the pope said. It “gives rise to even more active communication, requiring sensitivity and a capacity to listen that often makes manifest the true measure and nature of the relationships involved.”
For Pope Benedict, silence and words represent “two aspects of communication that need to be kept in balance.” If “authentic dialogue and deep closeness between people are to be achieved,” he believes that both silence and words require their place. Actually, silence and words need to “alternate” places in our communication.
Two disappointing outcomes are possible when either words or silence alone dominates our communication, according to the pope. Communication breaks down because:
— It creates “confusion.”
— Or, “it creates an atmosphere of coldness.”
But when silence and words complement each other, “communication acquires value and meaning,” Pope Benedict said. He suggested that silence gives birth to an enrichment of the words we speak; it enhances what we say to each other.
After all, “in silence we are better able to listen to and understand ourselves,” he wrote. In addition, in silence “ideas come to birth and acquire depth; we understand with greater clarity what it is we want to say and what we expect from others; and we choose how to express ourselves.”
Balance Words, Silence, Images, Sound
In times when “messages and information are plentiful, silence becomes essential if we are to distinguish what is important from what is insignificant or secondary,” Pope Benedict said.
We all know, of course, that with the Internet, social networking, television, the magic of e-mail and all the other new technologies, “messages and information” indeed are plentiful. There is more to balance in life than words and silence. Images and sounds also must be factored into the equation.
Pope Benedict urged in his World Communications Day message that people “develop an appropriate environment, a kind of ‘ecosystem’ that maintains a just equilibrium between silence, words, images and sounds.”
Towalski seemed to have some of these 21st century images and sounds in mind when he encouraged people to “spend some time at home as a family” this Lent “with televisions, radios, phones and computers turned off.”
These communications media, “valuable as they are,” interfere at times “with family communication,” Towalski said. His advice? “Shut them down, share a prayer and a meal together, and then play a board game or enjoy another family activity.”
Here, silence is “not the focus,” he said. However, quieting down in these kinds of ways creates an opportunity “worth seizing to nurture better communication in other ways among husbands and wives, parents and children.”
Try a Little Kindness
If silence is a good Lenten practice, so is kindness.
In his monthly message to the diocese, Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., said “the key to Lent” is found by viewing it “less as a burdensome obligation and more as an opportunity to do something positive.” The bishop thought Glen Campbell’s “Try a Little Kindness” might well serve as a Lenten theme song.
But kindness does not have to be expressed in “dramatic” ways, Bishop Hubbard said. Simple actions like pleasantly greeting a bus driver, a bank teller or “the person entering church with us” are expressions of kindness.
Moreover, kindness can be expressed by listening with greater patience and sensitivity “to our spouse, children, coworkers or friends,” the bishop wrote.
Something said by Father Adolfo Nicolas, the Jesuit superior general, was noted in Bishop Hubbard’s message. Father Nicolas’ advice, the bishop said, was that before speaking we ask ourselves “three questions” about what we will say: “Is it true; is it kind and gentle; and is it good for others?”
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.