Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Sounding Silence

If the Church’s social teaching is our best kept secret, the runner-up has to be our position on media. Within such a classified report is hidden a sub-secret: Every May for the past 45 years, the Catholic Church has celebrated World Communications Day, and we’re about to do it again on May 20. Will we never learn?

This year’s theme is on silence and the word  in sharing the Good News. Whenever I give a presentation on media even to Catholics, nobody ever guesses that the Church believes the media are “gifts of God.” That’s been the secret teaching since 1936. Christians have become adept at camouflaging it with campaigns and boycotts, drawing public attention away from our good news about media and effectively riveting attention on the offending message. Do some messages need protesting? I say yes, but I’d like to see it organized along the lines of the Anti-Defamation League. Then maybe someone will take us seriously.

But that’s a topic for another day. Pope Benedict is suggesting silence as this year’s theme, not because communication is not good, but because it is. We need silence, he says, to sift through what we see and hear to uncover what’s real:
“[P]eople today are frequently bombarded with answers to questions they have never asked and to needs of which they were unaware. If we are to recognize and focus upon the truly important questions, then silence is a precious commodity that enables us to exercise proper discernment in the face of the surcharge of stimuli and data that we receive.”
The average American (Is there such a creature?) is hit by approximately 3,000 ads per day. Internet, TV, and radio commercials, newspaper, magazine, and church bulletin ads, billboards, t-shirts, and logos, coupons, product packaging, and product placement in movies: When we tally it all, what first seems like an exaggerated claim takes on the possibility of truth. And that’s just ads. Through various media, words, images, and sounds invade our most cherished spaces and moments, from a dinner date to a church service. In January, the director of music at the New York Philharmonic, for the first time in its history, stopped a performance of the meditative final movement in Mahler’s Ninth Symphony to insist that a cell phone be silenced, after repeated interruptions that could be heard in the back balconies. Besides the consummate annoyance caused by that blessed phone, such lack of consideration on the owner’s part tells the world that others’ need to step away from chatter and clatter is subordinate to at least one person’s drive to stay wired. What Benedict wrote about digital access applies to social gatherings in general: 
“Attention should be paid to the various types of websites, applications and social networks which can help people today to find time for reflection and authentic questioning, as well as making space for silence and occasions for prayer, meditation or sharing of the word of God.”
Silence helps cement our relationship with God because it opens the way to listening and love. We need to build the inner receptors that enable us to distinguish true communication from static. As one of our chaplains said recently, we learn to separate “what is coming at us from the outside, misguiding us, from what our true inner voice is saying to us—a voice which is trying to keep us focused and on center.” He added:
“There are many voices out there that can only distract and scatter us. They really don’t care how or where we end up, or whether we are going around in circles. Perhaps we have paid too much attention to them in our lives.

“There’s much to maneuver as we journey through life. There are big and small decisions to make along the way, some of which can alter our lives and have long-term effects. The question is: What and who will help us make these decisions? Where do we turn for clarity and consistency?

“The voice of the shepherd, Jesus tells us, wants to gather us. He wants to give us rest from futility, vain pursuits, and wasted energies. His voice can help us keep our wits about us in an often misguided world” (Raymond Collins, C.Ss.R.).
Actually, isn’t that what silence between human beings is supposed to do, too—grow our relationships?
“In silence, we are better able to listen to and understand ourselves; 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. By remaining silent we allow the other person to speak, to express him or herself; and we avoid being tied simply to our own words and ideas without them being adequately tested. In this way, space is created for mutual listening, and deeper human relationships become possible” (Benedict XVI).
Genuine silence has nothing to do with that stony, sullen brooding that’s calculated to punish or manipulate another. That’s born, not of God, but of a competitive spirit, in the destructive sense of the word. In addition, the mere absence of talk is no indication of rich interior reserves of silence within. Some of us are naturally loquacious, but we need just as much moderation as those who can’t seem to put two words together. Once when I was a novice, I was spouting off at lunch about who-knows-what. My novice director got up, walked to where I sat, planted herself directly behind me, and jolted me with, “Sr. Margaret! You could give a two-hour dissertation on a blade of grass!” It drew nothing but a giggle from me and relentless teasing especially from one co-novice (What else are they for?)

God "speaks through the mystery of his silence."
Silence and word, the yin and yang of communication, are essential for life and the mission of evangelization. When we can speak with God we find that we can speak about God. Prayer, silence with God, is a prerequisite for witnessing to God and sharing his Good News with others. In this prayerful exchange, the Lord conditions us and teaches us to recognize opportunities to share him with others and reach out to them. Then the Spirit of God graces the encounter, so that effectiveness in ministry depends less on technique than on union with the Spirit nurtured in silence. “Silent contemplation immerses us in the source of that Love who directs us towards our neighbours so that we may feel their suffering and offer them the light of Christ, his message of life and his saving gift of the fullness of love” (Benedict XVI).

The Pope wrote exclusively about silence as it relates to interpersonal communication and the sharing of “advice, ideas, information, and answers,” especially with respect to evangelization. He could just as easily have included entertainment. In fact, entertainment now constitutes one of the most frequent uses of media overall. One source claims that 100 million video clips are viewed on YouTube every day. Can we abstain here and there? We seem to guzzle much of what comes our way: food, commodities, sexual and social interaction, and media. Even naturally speaking, occasional abstinence from these sharpens the appetite, refines sensibilities, and increases pleasure. Chronic and indiscriminate indulgence, instead, dulls them and increases the risk of dependence. I was intrigued by the number of my Facebook “friends” who gave up the networking site for Lent. I would be interested in what they thought of their experience. Mere abstinence doesn’t bring us closer to the Lord, but when this “silence” is filled with the Word of God in one way or another, it can prepare us to search for God in our media experiences and integrate them with Gospel values.

We flee silence, afraid perhaps of what will surface if we don’t keep the lid on. If we have a little courage, though, we just might discover how liberating it is. Stubborn character flaws, solutions or answers that have eluded us, problems in relating to others, and distracted, scattered, living and praying all get a makeover during a regular appointment with silence.

Why not start slow: five minutes a day, same time, same station. Just sit. No structure. Listen to the sounds around you. Be aware of what you hardly ever notice. Or repeat a word of faith and peace for as long as it feeds you. Sometimes a simple prayer or a verse from Scripture can cultivate the inner life in surprising ways for those who persevere. When you’re ready, and you’ll know when that is, you can increase it or add another five-minute segment to the day. You’ll find your own pace. God will meet you there: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Lk. 11:13) May we revel in the mystery of God’s silence.

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