“Behold the desert, place of life not of death, because to converse with the Lord in silence restores life to us.”
Pope Francis, Ash Wednesday General Audience (Source: Zenit)
In his weekly audience for Ash Wednesday this year, Pope Francis returned to the idea that silence is an essential part of Christian life, for we need silence in order to hear the voice of God. Moreover, Francis insists that this voice of God isn’t just an ethereal thing with little relevance for our daily living. Rather, as he stated in Gaudete et Exsultate, in the silence we discern, “the paths of holiness to which the Lord is calling us” (150).
In his address, Francis quoted 1 Kings:
“And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
This passage from Scripture exemplifies the power of silence. It is even more powerful than an earthquake, because it is in the silence that God speaks to us in prayer and offers us a way forward. What makes prayer difficult, of course, is that silence is not always easy to find. In both our external world, full of noise and distractions, and our internal world, with its worries and anxieties, it is often very difficult to find even a moment of silence, and therefore to pray well. Yet Pope Francis reminds us that retreating to the “desert” is essential to our relationship with God. It is where we go to get away from all the noise and everything superfluous that surrounds us and distracts us. According to Francis, silence heals us from “a worldliness that atrophies the heart.”
It is not sufficient merely to value silence in principle. We must create a desert in our lives where God can speak. This involves taking very practical steps. As Pope Francis says, “It’s the time to turn off the television and to open the Bible. … It’s the time to give up, to tear ourselves away from our mobile phone and connect ourselves to the Gospel.”
As we seek time in the desert this Lent, we must also be mindful of the experiences of others. This means, we must not “pollute our environment,” in our speech and actions. We should avoid engaging in gossip and spreading rumors. When we engage in such behavior, we not only harm ourselves, but we prevent others from hearing the voice of God calling out to them from the silence as well.
Some of the headlines about this audience in the secular media applied the words of Francis to online trolling. This is a good example of the behavior Francis is addressing. This “noise” of trolling is distracting and can lead people to be uncharitable or lash out in anger. Nowadays, it is practically impossible to find “silence” while online. As Francis says, the internet “amplifies” our “verbal violence” against each other. While engaged with others on the internet this Lenten season, Francis is calling us to conduct ourselves with charity, peace, and a desire for mutual understanding.
We are praying for you and all our readers. We pray that this Lent be a desert for you, where you can hear the voice of God in the silence and where God can restore your life. We pray that this be a grace-filled opportunity to grow in faith and charity. And we ask for your prayers as well.