As the season of Advent begins, a time for recollection and spiritual preparation, we would like to share with everyone our series of reflections “Wellsprings of Silence.” In the words of Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe, “Only in silence can we be nudged by grace. A space of stillness, a time of darkness is a place of waiting in expectant trust.”
“For everything there is a season… A time to be silent and a time to speak.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1,7)
By Donna Orsuto
I wrote this reflection on silence in August, 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 spring lockdown with several other scholars of The Lay Centre, who were unable to return to their home countries. During those months, 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 or 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.
The pandemic continues now, even as we begin Advent, and all over the world people continue to suffer.
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 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. Click here
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, as we journey towards the feast of Christ’s birth. Click here
Photo courtesy of Father Emiliano Antenucci, OFM Cap.
Suggested reading: Timothy Radcliffe OP, Sing a New Song: The Christian Vocation. The Dominican, Timothy Radcliffe quotes Pascal, "I have discovered that the unhappiness of human beings comes from just one thing; not knowing how to remain quietly in a room." Radcliffe insists on the importance of silence so that we may be ready to be surprised by the gifts of knowledge or insight. "Only in silence can we be nudged by grace." he writes, "A space of stillness, a time of darkness is a place of waiting in expectant trust…."
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 articles.
"Wellsprings of Silence" ecumenical series of reflections for Advent 2020.
We hope these reflections will help to draw you into the silence of the grotto, where Christ was born, so that you may gaze upon Him at Christmas with wonder and praise.
We are grateful to Lay Centre friends from around the world who agreed to contribute to this ecumenical series which was first presented in summer 2020:
Father John Keating, O.Carm., is active in retreat and conference ministry. He has served as a lecturer at the Milltown Institute of Philosophy and Theology in Dublin and recently completed 12 years on the General Council of the Carmelite Order as the general councillor for Europe. He currently lives in Ireland. In the 1990s, he spent a year in silence and solitude on the shores of Lough Derg in Ireland.
Rev. Dr. Karen Petersen Finch is a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church and an ecumenist in the Reformed tradition. She is associate professor of theology at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, and a fellow of the Lonergan Institute at Boston College. Inspired by Bernard Lonergan’s theological method, she creates local dialogues between Roman Catholic parishes and Presbyterian churches, and then communicates about the dialogues to spur development of new models for local ecumenism. Her book, “Local Christian Unity: A Primer for Neighborhood Dialogue,” will be published in 2021.
Grace Pratt Morris-Chapman is a British Methodist Mission Partner, originally from Ghana, but currently serving in Rome, with her husband, Daniel, who is the minister at Ponte Sant’Angelo Methodist Church. They have four children. Food, reading, music and travelling are among her favourite things.
Rev. Olivia Maxfield-Coote and Rev. Sebastian Harries are married and both priests in the Church of England. She is vicar to a team of churches in Essex, and he is chaplain to St. Gabriel’s College, a Church of England high school, in London, as well as assistant priest at a parish in Kennington. They live in Essex and enjoy walking in Epping Forest. They met while training for ministry at Westcott House in Cambridge. Sebastian was a resident at The Lay Centre in 2015-2016.