May our God bring us strength and consolation as we pray, for the path is often not easy.
And let us walk this road together and pray for one another, even when practicing solitude, lest we believe that we are on the path alone.
When I read the title of this chapter, “Holy Silence”, I felt a pleasant anticipation, imagining that I would enjoy reading it and writing of it. It has been much more challenging that I had expected.
But I think the Lord has made me ready, at last, to write. And so I begin…
The question is posed: “How much spiritual fruit have you borne as a branch in the vine?”
This question is challenging enough – but the quote that follows is even more startling: “Do not tell me, ‘I have preached in your name, served your gospel, healed your sick,’ lest you hear the rest of the saying: ‘Depart from me…’ For you have already received your wages – honor, money, fame and good repute.”
And a similar chiding follows for those who might claim as their “fruit” having attended church and offered sacrifice.
I found myself wondering, “what is left?” If the fruit to be borne is found neither in the works of the gospel nor the practice of the faith, where is it to be found?
The response of our author caught me off guard: “…the fruit that the vinedresser seeks is the amount of growth your soul has achieved in grace, as well as your promotion in the faculties of the spiritual life.”
I found myself reacting to this. Frankly, I thought it sounded rather selfish. It’s all about how far I’ve advanced in the spiritual life? What happened to loving my neighbor as the Lord Jesus has loved me?
What comes next in the text made sense to me. Sort of. This is where the “holy silence” comes in and it doesn’t sound nearly as attractive as I had anticipated.
If we want to learn whether or not we have been fruitful, Fr. Matta instructs us, we are to go into our rooms, close the door and examine the depths of our souls in silence and prayer before God.
We will then see our own image “in the mirror of God”. We will see that we are poor and wretched, naked and ugly, not resembling God at all.
It is only God’s compassion that protects us, shielding us from seeing the full reality of this all at once. Likely we could not bear it.
While this sounds rather gloomy, the discovery of our sins must be viewed as a blessing, even if not an easy one. For in this self-knowledge we become able to truly cry out to God for His mercy, weeping before Him. And “You shall surely not depart from God’s presence unless you shall have acquired every time new hyssop with which to wash yourself until you become whiter than snow.”
Fr. Matta adds some additional comments on the practice of this silence, what it is and what it is not. But I will pause here. Remember that I said it only “sort of” made sense to me?
I have pondered on and off in my life why it is that salvation is portrayed as being so difficult to come by. Or at least I have pondered it often while reading books of this sort, much as I love them.
I read of the great ascetics, their severe fasting and all night vigils. I learn of the holy martyrs – of both body and soul – who forfeit their lives for love of the Lord. I am awed by the tireless servants of Christ who give up their lives to tend to the poor.
Admittedly, Jesus Himself made it sound as though it was going to be rather difficult to enter into Life:
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7: 13-14, NABRE)
And yet…and yet, Scripture tells us that our Savior also welcomed into the Paradise a criminal hanging on the cross next to Him – whose only act of faith was to say in the final moments of His life, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23: 42).
No fasting. No vigils. No retreats into holy silence. No great works of mercy.
As I write this, it is the feast of the holy Apostle, St. Andrew. In our (RC) Scriptures for the feast, we read the well-known passage that begins,
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans, 10: 9)
This passage, of course, was oft cited in the great controversy about “faith vs. works”. A controversy which, BTW, I never thought merited the time and effort countless theologians put into it.
Yet my mind drifted in the direction of the controversy despite myself. Though confessing faith in Jesus as the risen Christ was not a safe or simple thing to do at the time St. Paul penned these words, doing so now is a relatively simple process.
I believe. I’m saved.
I’m not saying it always easy to believe but there is nothing in the process that seems to require endless pleas for mercy or rigorous acts of asceticism throughout one’s life.
Certainly, assuming one is not about to die when first accepting the faith, one’s faith must necessarily manifest in good works. To accept the faith is to change the heart and a changed heart must live out its mission.
So to what end is this gloomy going-into-the-closet business, a process whereby I can see how truly horrid my sins are which, BTW, I purportedly believe have been forgiven?
Now I am sure there are many ways this question can be answered. Many good ways.
But I am going to share with you but one, the one that given to me this evening as my mind wandered this path:
It is important – no necessary – that we look at ourselves. And that is something we simply do not want to do.
Of course, our culture is a great help to us in our avoidance of looking deeply into ourselves. Music, movies, games, foods – countless and varied distractions stream at us and can be delivered to our doors or our devices most any time of day or night.
We need not bear a moment of silence or stillness. It is no accident that we have created such a culture.
But those of us in the Faith may be vulnerable to ever more subtle avoidances. “I go to confession,” I may say to myself. “I examine myself and confess my sins. I repent.” And perhaps we do and do so sincerely.
But even here, and I speak from experience, I can go to confession and I can go to confession.
A sincere confession can be prepared for and executed in a relatively short period of time. Then I resume my busy life and distractions.
This is not inherently bad or wrong. But if I have not learned to enter the holy silence, at least episodically in my life, I may be missing something very important.
I write this as a person who has missed (and avoided) some very important things for a long time. (And I’m sure that, even as I sit here, there are more things that I continue to miss and avoid. It is part of our sinful condition.)
And what I might be missing is twofold. First, I may very well be missing vital aspects of the disease in my soul. Because, out of fear or shame or even laziness, I do not look deeply, the roots remain alive and continue to grow – into the same old sins – or new variations.
Second, if I am missing this, I am also missing the deep, deep healing that comes from the “treatment” for my disease. It is not just that I need absolution. I need to be made anew in God’s grace. (That is, of course, what absolution is meant to be. But is will not be experienced as such if I have missed what needs to be healed.)
Faith. Works. Simple. Hard. How do all these seeming contradictions come together in this holy silence?
The man hanging from a cross next to Jesus, to all outward appearances, found salvation with just a few words. How could this happen?
It happened because he looked at himself – in the “mirror of God,” hanging next to him. And Jesus, hearing his words and seeing the truth in his heart, announced it for all coming generations to know. “This is what is needed – enter.”
Profoundly simple, yet I’m sure very, very hard.
Faith or works? It must be both, of course, for they are inseparable.
We recognize his faith. But what “works” can a man do while dying?
He spoke. Aloud. For all to hear.
He could have kept his thoughts to himself, assuming, “He is the Son of God. He will know that I believe in Him.”
No. He spoke. He humiliated himself in front of all. Those who jeered at Jesus likely jeered at him.
But that no longer mattered – for he had looked deeply at himself and then at the Lord. He had to speak.
I wonder how many people have been comforted, if not saved, throughout history because this man acted – because he spoke.
And so we are called to look within. Deeply. In holy silence.
Unless we have reached the final moments of our lives, we will likely be doing this more than once.
We will not want to do it. At least not at first. It takes courage to see what is there.
But when we encounter Jesus there – when we find Him waiting for us in the holy silence, eager to heal us and draw us further into Himself – we will learn to go into the silence despite our fears.
We will forget their darkness in the light of Him.
And in the end, it is only the Light that matters.
(As always, comments or questions for further reflection are welcome.)