“For everything there is a season…
A time to be silent and a time to speak.”
“How much noise there is in the world.
Let us learn to be silent before ourselves and before God.”
By Donna Orsuto
I write this reflection on “silence” perched above the Coliseum on the Caelian Hill in Rome, where The Lay Centre is located. It is in this place that the Passionist founder, St. Paul of the Cross, established one of his communities.
It is in this place that I spent the lockdown with several other scholars of The Lay Centre, who were unable to return to their home countries. During those months, though often intensely busy with teaching my Gregorian University classes online and with administrative responsibilities at The Lay Centre, I also discovered the richness of the silence that this place offers. I think I can glimpse something of what St. Paul of the Cross had in mind when he came to the Caelian Hill in the 18th century.
In a letter to Father Fulgenzio Pastorelli, dated Dec. 16, 1747, St. Paul of the Cross describes the Caelian Hill as “one of the most solitary places in Rome, a place of great silence and recollection, a little less than a mountain, fresh air, a garden with water, it is an excellent place, I do not think I could find anything better in Rome, fresh air, beautiful” (Letter II, 127-128). He always sought such “retreat” spaces for his communities because he was convinced that the best way to share with others the good news of Jesus Christ crucified and risen was to prepare oneself through periods of solitude and silence.
I have lived in this place for the past 12 years, but it took a pandemic to help me to enter more deeply into the silence that St. Paul of the Cross writes about. I have come to realize that it is a silence that calls for attentiveness to God and to others, especially for those who are suffering, those who are sharing in the cross of Christ.
In many of his letters to laity, St. Paul of the Cross encourages women and men of various walks of life to cultivate “interior silence” and to become “friends of silence.” A recurring theme in his letters is the invitation to wait in “silence and hope,” which echoes Isaiah 30:15: “In quietness and trust will be your strength.” Especially in times of trouble and tribulation, he encourages others to live in the “silence of faith and love.”
Many people have experienced unspeakable suffering in these past months. I think, for example, of the elderly — and not so elderly — who caught COVID-19 and who suffered and sometimes died alone, without the consolation of their loved ones nearby. I think of grandchildren who wondered why they could no longer see and be with their grandparents. I think of friends who lost loved ones and who could not express their grief to their families and friends. I think of those who are no longer employed and who worry about how they will put the next meal on the table for their families. I think of refugees who, after a harrowing journey that lasted many months and even years, finally found themselves in a safe place only to experience the pandemic. I think of the poor and homeless who often had nowhere to go during this crisis.
In the face of such suffering, certainly we can — and must do what we can — to concretely show our solidarity. At the same time, I find that sometimes words seem hollow in these situations. What you and I can do though is stand together with those who suffer, in “the silence of faith and of love,” recognizing that really in quietness and trust will be our strength.
Pope Francis was gifted a few years ago with a contemporary icon of Our Lady of Silence, which has been placed in the Apostolic Palace. What is stunning is how her eyes lock with yours. Her right index finger rests vertically over her lips and her left hand encourages us to stop and be still (see full image in photo gallery below). Some say that Pope Francis is devoted to Our Lady of Silence because her gesture encourages people to be careful with their words. I suspect it goes much deeper because Pope Francis knows the power of silent intercessory prayer as demonstrated on March 27, with his “Urbi et Orbi” blessing and prayer during the pandemic. Take a few moments to relive this unforgettable moment and join us in silent prayer for those who still suffer in various parts of the world. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nOlYQB8Twdk
To conclude, you may wish to take some time to listen to this Italian hymn that extols the Mother of God as a “cathedral of silence”. Together, let us thank her for accompanying us during this challenging time https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ANgwYzseIoU
Photo courtesy of Father Emiliano Antenucci, OFM Cap.
Dr. Donna Orsuto is the co-founder of The Lay Centre and a professor of spirituality at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. She gives lectures and retreats worldwide and has authored two books and numerous journal articles.