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Friday, December 31st, 2021

‘Dum medium silentium’: Another Sermon for Sunday in the Octave of the Nativity

While all things were held in the midst of silence, & night had reached the middle of her cycling course: your all powerful Word, O Lord, came from heaven, from the royal places around your throne (Wisdom 18).

This morning, our introit put me in mind of the silence of the Roman canon—a thing very precious to us as Romans, and to myself as a priest of the Roman Rite. It’s worth a sermon or two. But for the time being, a certain necessity puts another theme before us. I am thinking about silence as it pertains to the ascetical life. You know how often I give the advice about keeping a distance from all forms of media: but what we will say this morning constitutes a great deal of the background regarding why I give this advice. 

Silence has two ends: the ascetical end and the contemplative end. Today, I want to limit myself to speaking about the ascetical purpose of silence. 

Silence is first of all an ascetical discipline, and it is bi-directional: that is, it pertains both to the speech we produce and to what sound we allow to enter from the outside. It is a question of what we do and what is around us. The advice we all get as children is related at least to the first part: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. This maxim articulates well enough what we mean by one part of ascetical silence: we refrain from certain types of speech and communication in order to avoid sin. Lying, slander, calumny, detraction, gossip, blasphemy; frivolity, lewdness, criticism, contention, complaining; even heresy and schism—all of these can be avoided, in large measure, by practicing silence.

As for the silence of the world around us, that too is of great consequence. The truth that grace perfects nature is especially operative here. Ambient noise, depending upon the circumstances,  can make the interior life effectively impossible. The Delphic maxim know thyself is predicated upon the ability to be still and to have some possession of the movements of our interior life. And this type of knowledge does form part of Christian living. (The question of the music we listen to naturally fits into the discussion at this point.) But in the same way that unhealthy air undermines our bodily health, disordered and oppressive ambient sound badly effects the health of the soul and its faculties. 

So we can summarize the ascetical importance of silence by saying: practicing silence aims at the avoidance of sin and its occasions.

A beautiful tension exists in today’s introit to tell us so. The first verse I quoted above is taken from Wisdom 18; the versicle is from Psalm 92. Wisdom 18 paints in striking picture, indeed, of the silence and delicacy of how grace can be insinuated into human life: it comes in the midst of silence and night. Psalm 92, on the other hand, describes the complementary power of grace: “The Lord has reigned, has been clothed with beauty; he is clothed himself with strength and girded himself about with it.” The lesson seems rather clear: silence lays the groundwork for immense spiritual strength. One thinks of the silent prisons of the martyrs; the silent hours of prayer of our great contemplatives; the silence of the peaceful Christian home.

 


{Art Credit: David Roberts (1796-1864), Bethlehem: Looking towards the Dead Sea (1839); private collection.}

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