The Luminous Silence of Advent

Christmas Dawn

How ironic that my 1,400th blog post on iBenedictines should be about silence! After so many words, to use yet more words on something that implies the absence of sound and speech is, at best, paradoxical. But it is a paradox worth exploring, especially during Advent when we are confronted with so many images of the Divine Word leaping down into our world and creating it anew. Silence is to sound and speech what presence is to absence, a way of knowing and understanding that surpasses human language. Our faltering words cannot encompass the mystery of God, but they try. If we always end in failure of some kind, there is no loss because with God all is gain. We know that; and so, as we begin our journey through Advent, we are buoyed up by hope and joy. Israel’s redemption is close at hand. A Saviour will be born to us. Our deafness will be healed. But first, we must be still, we must be silent; we must listen. And like anyone taking their first steps in prayer, there is the distinct possibility that all we’ll hear to begin with is the sound of our own heartbeat and the cacophony of voices pulling this way and that in our own minds.

If we persevere and make the effort to allow the interior noise to fall away, if we set a guard over our lips as the psalmist says and check the tendency to give everyone the benefit of our opinion, we will discover a store of silence within. At times, it may appear bleak or barren, sheer emptiness; but it is a silence waiting to be filled, and as Advent goes on, we may begin to see that what at first seemed like emptiness is a kind of fullness and our silence, far from being bleak, is warm and luminous. Alas, that is not everyone’s experience. For many there is only the dark and terrible silence of war and violence, exploitation and human misery — the enforced silence of not being heard, not being allowed to speak. How do we reconcile the beautiful silence of Advent I have written about with this oppressive and ultimately destructive silence?

I think the answer lies in what we do with our silence. We can luxuriate in it, hug it to ourselves, thinking that we are in some way being ‘spiritual’ because we are not being noisy. That is self-indulgence and will lead to nothing but disgust and weariness. Alternatively, we can use our silence to embrace the world’s pain and bring it before God for healing. That is to enter into the dynamic of God’s own redemptive love, the reason he became man for us. It isn’t easy. Our own words, our own ideas about how things should be, the good advice we long to give others (even God), they all have a way of creeping in and creating an inner din that drowns out the whisperings of the Spirit and clouds our vision of the light. We get in the way when we need to step aside. Learning to do just that, changing direction, so to say — metanoia — is what our Advent obsevance is meant to teach us. Our practice of silence should not merely change us; it should transform us.

For me, personally, the challenge this Advent is to be quieter, more attentive, less full of my own words (or anyone else’s) so that the Word of God may find a welcome in my heart and mind. Here in the monastery we begin Advent with three days of total silence — three days of intense listening. They are usually the most difficult and distracted of the year — not because we don’t want to be silent (after all, much of our daily life is silent) but because once one has decided to be silent, everyone and everything conspires against it. Place oneself in the front-line, so to say, and the devil will attack; and because he is clever and an angel of light still, the attack won’t be obvious, but it will be exhausting. Advent is one of those wilderness experiences we have to go through and we must expect it to be arduous.

As the community here goes into Advent, we carry with us the hopes, fears and  longings of all who have asked our prayers, and the hopes, fears and longings of those who cannot or will not ask but whose need is known to God. May the luminous silence of Advent lead you to the Word made flesh this Christmas. Amen.

Please note: during these three days of silence, all tweets, FB prayer intentions and blog posts are pre-scheduled. We do not respond to emails, letters or messages or engage online during these days. This time is for the Lord.