“In the first place, silence is a great means of acquiring the spirit of prayer, and of disposing the soul to converse continually with God. We rarely find a spiritual soul that speaks much. All souls of prayer are lovers of silence that is called the guardian of innocence, the shield against temptations, and the fountain of prayer. For by silence devotion is preserved, and in silence good thoughts spring up in the soul.”
-St. Alphonsus de Liguori
Like St. Alphonsus, so many of the saints are exceptional examples of the spiritual fruits that silence can provide. In their lives of contemplation, they learned to “converse continually with God” and their writings and rich interior lives bear witness to this. It sounds strange at first to think of the saints as “lovers of silence” because in our world today, silence is the enemy–it is something to be feared and to avoid at all costs. Almost everything that is considered of value in our world is noisy and designed to distract our minds from our very selves. To be alone with our own thoughts has become like a worst nightmare. Instead, we can just pull out our phones and turn on some music, or a podcast, or scroll through random photos and videos and voila–we never have to be alone with ourselves and our thoughts again.
I’ve certainly fallen into this trap myself–of becoming afraid of too much silence and always trying to find ways to fill it. When I was younger, I used to crave a quiet moment to myself. In a house with nine other people, those moments were hard to come by. In college it was the same. I would escape to the little chapel on campus or to a hidden corner of the library for a moment of peace and quiet that was also hard to come by in my two bedroom apartment I shared with four other girls. Silence and alone time were luxuries that I had to seek out and that were often my most fruitful times of prayer and reflection. After college that changed drastically as my living situation changed, and suddenly my days were filled with these quiet moments to myself. However, instead of welcoming them as opportunities for prayer and reflection, I found myself desperately trying to fill the silence with whatever noise I could, and I became more and more uncomfortable and afraid of too much silence.
Silence made me uncomfortable because I wasn’t used to it and I didn’t know what to do with so much of it. I thought I disliked it so much because I was lonely and missed the noisy chaos of my family, but I quickly came to realize that listening to music or podcasts all the time didn’t make me feel any less lonely or homesick. Eventually, it began to dawn on me that I was filling my head with so much noise not because it made me feel better, but because it was easier and required less work than being silent. If, like St. Alphonsus says, silence is “a great means of acquiring the spirit of prayer,” then silence leads to prayerfulness and being prayerful requires effort. It requires discipline and an act of the will–to choose to turn our thoughts to God and away from ourselves.
This exposed a great lie I had been telling myself and a lie that the world tells us–that silence makes us feel alone and noise makes us feel less alone. In fact, the opposite is true. Noise is just that–noise. There is no true companionship you will find through your phone or by scrolling through images and videos of other people’s lives. Our truest companion is God and we converse with Him in silence. When we quiet all the noise around us, that is when we find Him and when He speaks to us.
To welcome silence and to truly become “lovers of silence” is not easy, just as establishing habits of prayer and having a rich interior life of prayer are not easy. If we find ourselves throughout our day having a quiet moment to ourselves, it’s often much easier to reach for our phone than to accept the silence and allow “good thoughts [to] spring up in the soul.” In fact, it’s never been easier to avoid silence and, therefore, to avoid prayer. I fail at this most of the time. And yet when, on occasion, we don’t fail and we accept the silence and let our thoughts turn to God, we, too, can live like the saints and be examples of the richness of a life that welcomes and, in fact, loves silence.