When I first put pen to paper to write a blogpost on Silence in the lead up to Christmas, my head was full of images of the ‘normal’ busy, buzzy time before and during the Christmas celebrations and my annual desperate longing for moments of peace. I couldn’t have imagined that Christmas 2020 would see near empty shopping streets in London and beyond, restaurants filled with beautiful festive decorations and a sense of anticipation for the crowds of carefree revellers, who would never come. What is normally a hectic, excitable and sometimes manic time of year with barely a chance to take a breath until the 26th , is for the first time in most people’s lives, a fairly sedate and uneventful period of time this year, due to Covid 19. Sadly, many families will spend this Christmas without loved ones who have died unexpectedly this year because of this awful disease. This year it feels as if there is so much on which we need to take time to reflect, and that enforced slowdowns and pauses give us moments in which we can spend closer, more intimate companionship with God.

The reason I wanted to write about silence at this time of year is because it is something I have reflected on more and more as Christmases have passed in my life. It is a time which, to be honest, has often filled me with anxiety because of the intensity which we have created in the lead up to the festive period, along with the manic melting pot of consumerism, emotions and expectations followed by exhaustion. At this time of year, I feel the need to pause, to switch everything off and just be silent. I crave peace and quiet and a chance to lift my head above water to remember why we have Christmas celebrations in the first place. When we are silent, we give ourselves the opportunity to listen and reflect on the messages we receive.

At Easter, Christians are called to contemplate the cross, and at Christmas, we contemplate the nativity scene. Pope Francis calls on Christians to make the contemplation of the nativity a central part of our preparation for Christmas.

“…there is another way to prepare, which I want to remind you and me, and which is within everyone’s reach: to contemplate a little, in silence, before the crib”.[1]

And in his beautiful homily on Christmas eve this year, Pope Francis reflected on the importance of silence within the nativity and the birth of the baby Jesus;

“He, the Word of God, becomes an infant; he does not say a word, but offers life.  We, on the other hand, are full of words, but often have so little to say about goodness”.[2]

Pope Francis encourages his listeners to contemplate that night in Bethlehem and take a moment to reflect on what the first Christmas was like. As we stand in silence in a poor manger and contemplate the birth of a baby who was to change the world, we can appreciate the simplicity of a scene poor in objects and possessions but rich with goodness and love. It is this call to contemplation within prayer which I was drawn to at a young age and I was encouraged by my parents to talk to God through prayer, but also to listen. Getting older, I began to speak to other people who understood the conversational nature of prayer and that contemplative prayer was something which has been around for centuries. Much of my Catholic education about prayer was about being submissive, yet talkative. We were given pages of prayers to remember to reel off when we ‘say our prayers’ and the suggestion that we might create the time to stop and listen to a possible response was never entertained. Contemplative prayer is prayer where we experience God’s presence within us, and it is vital in this process to take time to be silent. Prayer as a conversation with God, listening as well as speaking.

Contemplative prayer in the Christian tradition is tied in with the Monastic movement at the time of the desert fathers and mothers around the third century. At this time Christians were being persecuted in Rome and were forced to flee into the desert in order to practise their faith safely and to contemplate their relationship with God. These communities developed into what we now understand as Monasticism in the Mediterranean. Communities of men and women practised silent contemplative prayer as part of their daily lives and these groups began to grow across Europe and eventually became what we recognise today as monastic communities. Christians today have taken the examples of silent prayer from these early communities to invite the Holy Spirit into their own personal prayer space and centre their focus on God. The aim is to create a silent space to sit with God and make his presence a reality in our lives.

This year has offered more moments of silence and opportunities for contemplation than most and in a daily Mass in April of this year, Pope Francis encouraged people to embrace the silence which had been enforced due to the lockdown:

“It’s so quiet in this weather. You can even hear the silence. May this silence, which is a bit new to what we are accustomed, teach us how to listen, that we might grow in our ability to listen. Let us pray for this.” [3]

As we saw in Pope Francis’ Christmas reflections, he emphasises the importance of silent contemplation and it is something which he practises personally. He advocates silent prayer and contemplation as a way to visualise the Gospels, picture Jesus and ‘keep our eyes fixed on Jesus’[4]. This, he feels, is best way to keep Jesus central to our prayer life. The concept of silent prayer is often referred to as the ‘art’ of silent prayer which alludes to the difficulty which can be faced when being alone and silent with God in our busy surroundings. These moments of silence and peace need to be cultivated and embraced as our relationship with Jesus grows. If we take the time to listen, we can better understand how God is answering us and what we can do to better understand what we are praying for and how God answers our call. It makes prayer a two-way process. I understand it as listening to God’s response to our prayers and how our requests for help or strength or guidance can be answered in the lives we live, and within the people around us and that often, God has answered our prayers before we have even realised it. The ‘art’ of silent contemplative prayer gives us space to be with God and to empty our minds of the chaos of our everyday lives and Christmas is a perfect time to practise this contemplation and create moments of pure peace and experience God’s still small voice of calm.[5] We could also reflect that when searching for God, Elijah looked in the wind, the earthquake and the fire, but found Him in that still small voice.

Of course, not all silence is peaceful or a choice. Sadly, for many silence is something which is imposed on them and is used as a tool for control and submission. For those in abusive relationships and for millions of people across our world living under fascist and dictatorship rule, their voices are forced into silence and their opinions and contributions quashed. To not be silent in these situations can lead to torture and death. The human voice and the ability to communicate are such powerful tools which when taken away by an abuser destroy human dignity and freedom. This, for me, is another reason for silent moments spent with God – it reminds me how privileged I am to have a voice and channels through which to express and share it. To have the freedom to speak when we can, and to choose when to be silent is truly a blessing. By occasionally taking moments of silent contemplation, especially at ‘louder’ times like Christmas, we can welcome God into our realities and hold him in our hearts with the ones for whom we pray.

(picture credit Blue Skies & Soft Snow – Blog.Steamboat.com)

[1] General Audience of 23 December 2020 – Catechesis on Christmas | Francis (vatican.va)

[2] Holy Mass on the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord (24 December 2020) | Francis (vatican.va)

[3] Pope at Mass: may we learn to listen in times of silence – Vatican News

[4] Contemplative Prayer – Pope Francis Homilies

[5] From the hymn ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’ by John Whittier, referencing 1 Kings 19.

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