2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time (1 Sam 3:3b-10, 19; 1 Cor 6:13c-15a, 17-20, Jn 1:35-42) “The Silence of Listening” PDF Version
Homily for 2nd Sunday of OT, Year B (2018): 1 Sam 3:3b-10, 19; 1 Cor 6:13c-15a, 17-20, Jn 1:35-42
One of my first spiritual directors was a wise old Benedictine Monk named Fr Gregory. Among the first words of wisdom he shared me in regarding my own spiritual life was that a noble way to begin a time of personal prayer was by reciting the words of the young prophet Samuel “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” However, Fr Gregory warned me that I must mean what I said; for very often people can use these words to start a time of prayer, but what they really mean when they speak them is not “speak Lord, for your servant is listening” but rather “Listen Lord, for your servant is speaking!”
While there is nothing wrong with speaking to God and telling Him what is on our heart and mind, too often we begin to speak to God but without having first listened to what He wants us to hear. By first listening to the Lord, we will have a better sense of what we should be asking Him and understanding why He frequently does not respond to our requests in the ways we want, or why He seems to be silent when in fact He is speaking, but we are not properly disposed to hear what He has to say.
To offer the prayer “Speak Lord, your servant is listening” is to discover that it is in the depth of silent prayer with God, when we have placed ourselves in His presence and made the resolution to be quiet and still before Him, that He will speak with clarity and resounding peace.
For many, there is a great difficulty in being silent with God or embracing silence in general. Cardinal Robert Sarah recently commented that many “Catholics no longer know that silence is sacred because it is God’s dwelling place. How can we rediscover the sense of silence as the Manifestation of God? This is the tragedy of the modern world: man separates himself from God because he no longer believes in the value of silence….Without silence, God disappears in the noise. And this noise becomes all the more obsessive because God is absent. Unless the world rediscovers silence, it is lost. The earth then rushes into nothingness…”[i]
As Cardinal Sarah points out, the stakes are high for us as Catholic Christians to rediscover the value of silence, most especially silent prayer in our lives of faith. Thus Cardinal Sarah said further that “the silence of listening is a form of attention, a gift of self to the other, and mark of moral generosity…[thus] it is necessary to impose silence on the labour of thought, calm the agitation of the heart, the turmoil of cares and worries, and eliminate all artificial distraction. Nothing makes us understand listening better than the correlation between silence and listening…[thus] the silence of listening is a silent heart to heart conversation.”[ii]
Cardinal Sarah offers some valuable suggestions about how we can enter into this “silence of listening”. He mentioned first that we “impose silence on the labour of thought.” This will mean we need to ask God for the grace to help us push aside distractions and discipline our minds to strive on focusing how to be more attentive to listening to what God wants to say.
Even the greatest mystics of our faith experienced distractions during time of silent prayer, and so they realized that to practice the silence of listening, this would mean humbly asking God repeatedly to help us push aside distracting thoughts that agitate the heart from being calm and lead to a turmoil of cares and worries to dominate our minds, making it difficult, if not impossible, to allow God to speak.
This does not mean that we do not bring God our the turmoil that burns in our souls or present before Him all the cares and worries that are present in our lives; we must certainly bring Him our burdens as He told us that He wishes to take our yoke upon His shoulders to assist us. But we must also learn to know when to put them aside momentarily and stand humbly before the Lord, trusting that He knows our burdens but that He also needs for us to be quiet and listen to what He needs for us to hear. There is not denying that to practice the silence of listening is incredibly challenging, yet it is among the most important spiritual practices we can undertake, ideally on a daily basis!
In addition, Cardinal Sarah spoke of the need to remove from our hearts those artificial distractions that can obstruct us from practicing the silence of listening. For many, this will be found in a need to seriously consider just how preoccupied we have become with forms of digital, auditory and sensual noise that bombard us on a daily basis. I can only speak for myself, but the more I have become involved in the world of social media, of allowing myself to often have music playing continually in my home and of finding refugee in a TV show as opposed to the silent and calming words of a book, the less I am able to hear the voice of God and find the practice of the silence of listening not only difficult to undertake, but also less appealing because I have become content to not listen to the Lord where I know He can most powerfully speak.
Has something similar happened in your life of faith? Is there too much artificial noise surrounding you, be it auditory, visual, sensual or that inability to control the great barrage of noise that marks the digital age in which we live? The danger is if we let the noise continue for too long, we will stop hearing God all together, especially when He is speaking and we are unable, or worse, unwilling to listen.
We should not think that this is simply a modern phenomenon that noise is obstructing our ability to hear the voice of God, a voice that many do not want to hear. Consider for example the challenging words that St Paul offered to the first Christians of Corinth. He was aware that the people of Corinth were known for their lax morality, where fornication, or what we call now a days sex before marriage, was a common practice that society did not see to be morally problematic. It seems that many of the first Christians of that city had become overwhelmed by the noise of the voices around them that said such moral behaviour was favourable and needed to be experienced, thus making them unable to hear the voice of the Lord that told them that the body is a Temple of the Holy Spirit and as such is to be kept free of those sins of the flesh that not only jeopardize one’s salvation, but also prevent the voice of God from being heard in one’s life.
My dear brothers and sister in Christ, let us ask God to help us listen to the ways in which He speaks, most powerfully in silence. Like the first disciples who heard St John the Baptist proclaim that the Lamb of God was in their midst, and was the one they must follow along the narrow path to salvation, so too may we continue to seek out Jesus Christ, knowing both when to act and love by following His example, but also to be quiet and still to listen to the ways in which He is speaking in our lives.
[i] Robert Cardinal Sarah, The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise, Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2016: Pg. 80
[ii] Ibid, Pg. 81