We all crave signs from above from time to time. Whether we are looking for guidance, a cure, assistance with a problem or something as specific as a new job, we want God to Speak. We want Answers. More often than not, of course, what we hear is nothing.
Does silence mean God is indifferent? Or that God has said No? How can we interpret this sometimes deafening silence? How can we find peace with it?
The Language of God
“As St. John of the Cross said, Silence is God’s first language,” Sister Helen Carey, OSB says. “We don’t have much silence in our culture. We’re always texting and playing music and watching videos. So we can’t enter into God’s silence and listen.”
That is, if we can’t immediately discern a response, we think we hear nothing. Sister Marilyn Ring, OSB offers an everyday example.
“A friend and I could sit together in utter silence and still be communicating,” she explains. “Silence wouldn’t mean we were saying nothing. We could be communicating support, companionship. We could be
communicating our presence to one another.”
The Presence of God
Taking her example further, Sr. Marilyn says we continue to feel one another’s presence after spending time together.
“We may not be able to see each other, but we can still feel each other’s presence because of what we shared,” she says. “I’m a firm believer in Jesus’ words, ‘I will always be with you.’ When we feel God’s absence – when we feel God is communicating nothing – the problem is ours, not God’s.”
That is, when we think God has left us, we’ve got it backwards. We are the ones who have left God. God’s language is a loving, complete, deep communication.
Sharing God’s Silence
Of course, during bad times we may not want to listen to anything at all. We may reject God and prayer entirely, at least for a time. In that case, the nothing we hear may come from our own heads.
“There are times I feel distant and don’t want to relate to God or anyone,” Sr. Marilyn says. “I may feel that way during a time of grief, for instance. But that doesn’t mean God is absent. I take Jesus’ words literally, in good times and bad. When I don’t hear anything, something is wrong with my hearing.”
Correcting such a “hearing problem” doesn’t require a trip to the doctor. In fact, learning to listen requires silence.
“I encourage people to practice Centering Prayer,” Sr. Marilyn says. “It gives us the opportunity to be in harmony with our total self, to relieve ourselves of stress. When we take 20 minutes to sit in silence, empty our minds of distracting thoughts and breathe deeply, we can be truly aware of God’s presence.”
She suggests trying it without fanfare: simply sit comfortably with eyes closed, say the Lord’s Prayer, then take up a simple word like Love or God. When distracting thoughts enter your mind, return gently to silence with your word.
“It’s quite all right if you don’t hear anything,” Sr. Marilyn says. “Sitting companionably with God allows God to work within you. It allows you to feel God’s presence.”
Sr. Helen agrees. “Silence is part of our faith,” she says, “and faith is a lot deeper than words. God wants us to go deeper than words. Silence reflects the depth of the One who is beyond in our Midst. We are called to open ourselves to that mystery.”
Rather, then, than focusing on what we don’t hear from God, the Sisters encourage us to be receptive to God’s presence in our hearts, in others, in the world around us.
“Maybe God’s silence means we are to look to ourselves,” Sr. Marilyn says. “Maybe we have all we need in our own God-filled hearts.” In the end, silence will help us know.