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Ever know someone who just doesn’t know when to shut up? Thibodeaux was walking down the road one day and spotted Boudreaux walking towards him carrying a sack over one shoulder and a shotgun over the other. Thibodeaux knew old Boudreaux had been out duck hunting so when they met, he asked him, “What you got in the sack?” Boudreaux replies with a smile, “I got me some ducks in this sack.” Thibodeaux then says to Boudreaux, “If I guess how many ducks are in yo sack, can I have one?” Boudreaux knows that Thibodeaux can barely count to ten, much less guess how many ducks he’s got, so he confidently says, “If you can guess how many ducks I have in this sack, I’ll give you both of them!” Thibodeaux guessed three.
The Psalmist writes, “For God alone my soul in silence waits”
It is said of Abbot Agatho, one of the desert monks, that he carried a stone in his mouth for three years until he learned to be silent, however, for us today, to go for more than a few hours of silence is enough to make us nervous.
In seminary we had silent retreats that lasted up to three days. There would be times of instruction – listening – but no talking. The goal: listen to God. I did enjoy them for the most part, but by the end of the day I would snap and end up talking to a dog or a tree.
When you are alone it is much easier to maintain the silence, but in a group, all that changes. During those retreats in seminary, we were all fairly successful on the first day and everyone obeyed the rules: head down, walking quietly, meditating, etc. However, we lacked discipline and we are by nature social creatures, so by day two, when you were certain none of the professors were looking, you would spot your buddy and give them a nod and a smile. They would then furtively look around and respond in kind. By day three, the entire seminary had worked out such an elaborate set of hand signals and gestures that we all looked like a third base coach giving instructions to the batter. Sure, no one is talking, but the silence is the equivalent of a high school marching band after the team wins the big game. But it’s not just us non-cloistered folks that can’t maintain the silence. The Trappist Monks live a life of silence and their most noted brother, Thomas Merton, writes that even the overuse of sign language within the material silence of the monastery promotes the busy mind.
The culture in which we live does not value silence. We like to have some kind of stimulation going on around us. It becomes habitual to turn on the TV or radio as one of the first things we do when we get home, just to have a bit of noise in the background. One author even refers to the negative aspect of this practice as “stimulation pollution,” and observes how it comes in many different forms: from the radio and TV to cell phones and computers, but then there are also books, magazines, billboards. There can be incessant talking as we flit from one person to the next. We find ourselves internally formulating our responses to the person who is speaking instead of listening. Interaction becomes a way to acknowledge that we really exist. If we are talking, worrying, giving our opinion, saying what we’ve done, what we own, we must be alive, we must have worth! But, there generally isn’t any space between the words to absorb what has been said. As a result, many of our conversations are superficial. Thomas Merton: “It is not speaking that breaks our silence, but the anxiety to be heard.”
Not only does this “stimulation pollution” effect our natural life, it also has a dramatic impact on our spiritual life. We become as equally anxious with the silence during our time with God as we do when the world becomes silent around us, so during those times when we should be still during our prayers, we will often respond in one of two ways: we either just keep rambling on or we stop, say “Amen,” and go about our business, believing that we are done. In truth, we are only beginning.
In our spiritual life, silence is not just the absence of talk—silence has substance. Silence is being in the presence of God. Merton claims that silence is our admission that we have broken communication with God and are now willing not only to listen to God, but to hear his voice. To be silent before God allows us to truly see Him in his glory and to hear what it is he has to say.
We read today: the three apostles who were closest to Jesus, Peter, James, and John, were allowed to go up on the mountain with him. As we have read many times before, Jesus would often go off to a secluded place where he could spend time with His Father. He would get away from all the “stimulation pollution,” which could even effect him, but on this occasion, he took the three with him so that they might experience something of the true nature of God. And they did.
Before their eyes the Lord was transfigured. The light that surrounded the Lord was not from outside of Jesus. It was from within. It was his glory radiating out, and so in the solitude and silence upon the mountain with Jesus—fully man—they came into relation with Jesus—fully God. And God love Peter, because he did just what so many of us do when we come to that point, he just couldn’t keep it shut: “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
Peter is standing in the very presence of God, the great deliverer Moses, and the Prophet of all prophets Elijah; yet, instead of being silent, instead of listening, he wants to know if he should put up a tent for everyone. It is easy to dig on Peter, but would we have done any better? Most likely we would have all pulled out our cellphones and taken a selfie, with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah in the background.
Most of you have probably figured out by now that I don’t hear so well even with hearing aids. One-on-one I’m pretty good, but put me in a room with a lot of voices and I just smile instead of being able to join in. These little devices are pretty amazing though. I didn’t realize how much I was missing until I got them, but when you first start wearing them—sound overload. You hear everything, all the way down to the sound of the grit under your shoes as you walk. It is too much stimulation pollution. Over time, your brain learns what’s important and what’s extraneous and then filters out the unnecessary. However, even then, there is still a lot of sound out there. I wouldn’t wish hearing loss on anyone, but I will tell you that one of the most satisfying moments of my day is taking them out. Not only is it an auditory sensation, in a way it is also physical, like being wrapped in a warm blanket on a cool evening.
The same thing is true in our times of silence before God. We’ve got a lot we want to say. Our minds race with the days activities, hurts, joys, things that we have done and left undone. It is our own personal cacophony of “stimulation pollution,” but in order to hear that still small voice, we must bow our heads and silence the extraneous, so that when God the Father says to us, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”—we will actually be able to hear what he says.
Thomas Merton wrote: “Lord, it is nearly midnight and I am waiting for you in the darkness and the great silence. I am sorry for all my sins. Do not let me ask any more than to sit in the darkness and light no lights of my own, and be crowded with no crowds of my own thoughts to fill the emptiness of the night in which I await You. “In order to remain in the sweet darkness of pure Faith, let me become nothing to the pale, weak light of sense. As to the world, let me become totally obscure from it forever. Thus, through this darkness, may I come to Your brightness at last. Having become insignificant to the world, may I reach out towards the infinite meanings contained in Your peace and Your glory.
“Your brightness is my darkness. I know nothing of you and, by myself, I cannot even imagine how to go about knowing You. If I imagine you, I am mistaken. If I understand You, I am deluded. If I am conscious and certain I know you, I am crazy. Darkness is enough.”
The “Alleluias” end this week and the silence of Lent begins. It takes practice and patience, but I pray during this season you will experience the stillness of God. I pray that you hear the voice of God speak words of comfort and love to your soul. I pray that you experience the deep silence and peace of his presence. I pray that the light of his glory fills you with an abundance of his Holy Spirit and that you are able to walk nearer to your God.
Let us pray: Lord, speak to us in the quiet moments of this day. Touch our lives and remind us to turn and choose Your way instead of ours. Encourage us to exercise the gifts and graces You have given us as your children. Walk with us along the pathways of our lives and teach us according to Your Wisdom and Love. Lord, speak to us, so that we will be ready to do Your will. Amen.