Finding Rest in the Silence

To hear the voice of God in the stillness

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AckermanOne day while I was driving, I noticed a billboard that had a particularly humorous phrase on it: “Jesus Is Coming, Look Busy!” I am quite certain that many of us do not have to look busy. I imagine that we are all swamped with events this time of year — decorating, parties, liturgies and planning as Advent wanes and Christmas approaches. However, a hectic pace does not always create the best atmosphere to ready us for Christ. Instead, it is in the silent and mundane moments that we most often encounter God and his majesty. Those moments, though, are sometimes few and far between.

Last Christmas, I encountered the chaos of the season on Christmas Eve. I had planned to have a leisurely Christmas Eve morning by praying and going over my homily for the evening. That did not occur. Instead, it was so cold that our radiator pipes froze, and then snapped in half, cutting off heat to half the church. While I was waiting in the blustery church for our HVAC man, our facilities director ran in to tell me that our manger had blown over and was rolling down the street. It was so windy, in fact, that two of the wise men nearly flew into the mall next door to our parish. “What a way to start Christmas,” I remember two people saying who helped us pull the manger out of the road.

The only saving grace was that our parish adoration chapel was open and silent. In the quiet of the chapel, I was able to calm down and reflect upon the Incarnation and Christ’s coming. I remember thinking: “The first Christmas occurred amid the chaos of the world. Why should this one be any different?” That silent moment helped me recollect enough to refocus for later.

One of our grade school teachers taught me a lesson of silence in reflecting upon an encounter she had with a student. He was standing outside by himself after school, holding a pack of broken-up crackers.

“What are you doing?” she asked him.

“I am feeding the birds,” he replied.

“I don’t see any birds here,” she said.

“Oh, that’s because you are too loud,” he answered. “If you stay silent, they will come, trust me.”

He was right. In fact, that teacher told me that so many winged fowl descended upon the school that she kept looking for Alfred Hitchcock to come around the bend. Our young friend knew something about the power of silence.

Cardinal Robert Sarah wrote a book on silence in which he reflected upon the need to remain still. “Silence,” he wrote, “is the prerequisite for love, and it leads to love. Love is expressed fully only by renouncing speech, noise, excitement and exaltation.” In the silence of our hearts, God can truly find a place to rest.

Once when our decorating committee finished putting up Christmas trees in the church, I noticed a man who had come with his wife sitting by himself off to the side.

“Are you okay?” I asked him. “I notice you are not with your wife.”

“I can tell you’re not married, Father,” he replied with a wry smile. “No, I am just enjoying the moment. The church looks so beautiful; it’s nice to just step back and appreciate what is happening.”

That man certainly understood something that the late Henri Nouwen identified in his writings on Advent. Advent, he wrote, “leads to a growing inner stillness and joy allowing me to realize that the One for whom I am waiting has already arrived and speaks to me in the silence of my heart.”

The season of Advent will certainly challenge our opportunities for silence. I imagine all of us will be quite busy with confessions, Masses, Christmas decorations and perhaps, although I hope not, cracked heating pipes and flying wise men. Amid it all, I pray that we can listen to the voice of God in the stillness, and prepare for Jesus’ coming by not being quite so busy. 

FATHER MICHAEL ACKERMAN is the pastor at Resurrection Parish, Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, and chaplain at Seton LaSalle Catholic High School in Pittsburgh.

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