What Is It about Silence?


Two weekends ago a friend of mine from college was in town. He is a religion teacher at a Catholic high school in Indianapolis. I have a bachelor’s degree in religious education and so naturally we talked about Catholic education. I was interested to hear what he has been working on with his own students. He talked about how much high school students have on their plates these days between school, work, and extracurricular activities. All of that on top of somehow finding time to fit in four to five hours a night getting their homework done.

He said that one of the most difficult things for them is to get away from all the distractions and to find time for silence.

We live in such a busy and noisy world, and people are becoming more and more uncomfortable with silence. As an assignment he had them spend a half hour in silence: no cellphone, no computer, no TV, or music. They then had to reflect on their experience. He found that about half the class loved it. They were able to finally clear their minds of all the concerns and distractions going on in their lives and to just be at peace for a short time. The other half found it difficult and even uncomfortable. They found themselves thinking even more about all the things they needed to get done that day, and therefore became even more distracted. This experiment of his peaked my interest.

My own ministry for the past few years has been working in campus ministry. The majority of my time spent is providing a ministry of presence. It has often been the case that I feel as if I’m not really accomplishing much. I think that sometimes when it comes to ministry I feel as if I always have to be doing something in order to really be ministering. However, for the last two years there I have been doing some preaching and I’ve noticed that without that ministry of presence and being able to see and hear what is going on in the lives of the students, I wouldn’t be able to preach effectively. The more time I spend with the students, like my friend, the more I see how busy they are. I also see how distracted they are on their cell phones or totally cut of from the world around them as they watch YouTube videos with earphones.

I was scheduled to preach that Sunday on the Gospel of Mark and the story of the healing of blind Bartimaeus. I talked about how, in the Gospel of Mark, people around Jesus just don’t get it. They don’t understand what he’s all about. I pointed to the last couple of Sunday Gospel readings. The rich man who went away sad because he had many possessions (Mk 10:17-30), James and John and their egos and presumptions getting in the way of understanding what they were really asking of Jesus (Mk 10:35-45), and the crowd trying to keep Bartimaeus back (Mk 10:46-52). I shared with them my conversation with my friend and I asked the question: “What keeps us from seeing God at work in our lives?” I offered up some possibilities and I touched on the role of social media and how we live in such a busy and noisy world. I then turned to the priest and asked that maybe we could spend a few minutes in silence reflecting on our own lives and what keeps us from growing closer to God. Before we did, I shared with them how silence can be awkward and even uncomfortable. I also shared that it is in  silence and in being uncomfortable that God speaks to our hearts and invites us to grow and to step outside our comfort zones.

Then there was silence.

For a little while it was completely silent.

Then I heard it; students starting to shuffle in their seats. The priest sitting with his eyes closed. Eventually a few people started to cough (you know the fake ones that are supposed to signal they’ve had enough). I was watching the priest. He was sitting with his eyes closed and I knew he was hearing what I was hearing because he was starting to smile. But he kept the silence going. Finally it was over and we continued on with mass.

The response was incredible. A lot of students came up and thanked me and shared how much they needed that moment of silence. I have a feeling those who were uncomfortable didn’t come up to share that with me, but to be honest, the silence went a little longer than even I was comfortable with. I too was beginning to wonder how long he was going to let it continue.

Since then I have found myself reflecting on what it is about silence that makes so many of us uncomfortable. What is it about silence? There must be something about it since our society has evolved into one that does everything it can to replace silence with noise and activity.

What is it about silence?

-Jason Salisbury

Photo Credit: Flickr


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