I have a love-hate relationship with silence.
I enjoy the peace that comes with it, the stillness that settles into my bones when I sit quietly somewhere. I love the calm of early morning, broken momentarily by a passing car, but only for a moment. I am most productive when I go to the library on campus and sit in the “quiet zone,” which is peaceful until students conduct full-on conversations in whispers and I contemplate shushing them (further ruining the silence).
Yet I also hate silence for one major reason — it often makes me feel alone. When I’m at home by myself, I often have to have music playing or the TV on just for background noise — partially because I’m uncomfortable being alone, partially because I’m superstitious and afraid of ghosts. But I digress.
On a more serious note, when I’m depressed, I need sensory stimulation because otherwise my mind will fill the silence with all kinds of negative thoughts. My mind will dredge up all kinds of pain and uncomfortable things for me to relive. That’s when silence hurts the most.
One place where silence doesn’t make feel alone, where silence is healing, is church.
Unless you come on a Sunday for worship or other service, a church is a relatively quiet space. I’m sure there are probably architectural reasons for that, at least in older, stone buildings where the rock walls block out most noise from the outside. Some people are uncomfortable with a quiet, nearly empty church. It makes the space feel lifeless, creepy even. That’s never been my experience. For me, a silent church is a sanctuary, a place where I can breathe deeply and listen to whatever God wants to tell me in that moment.
This past Friday I stepped into the Church of St. John the Evangelist (one of my favorite spaces) to pray since it was First Friday and I was planning on going to Mass later in the morning. The upper church is stunning, but the lower church in the basement is a hidden gem, wide and dimly lit. The pews are arranged in a semicircle around the altar. Despite being on a busy Center City street with buses full of commuters passing by, it is pretty quiet in there.
Knowing this, I felt bad when the door shut loudly behind me, even though I tried my best to close it gently. Then of course my footsteps were ringing loudly across the stone floor. I apologized in my head for disturbing the other five or six people in the space, even though they were probably used to people coming and going. I looked to the side as I enter and the kneeler in one of the pews has been left lowered. An invitation, I thought.
As I shuffled and settled down into the pew, I could hear the tinkling of rosary beads held by the woman sitting behind me… followed by the sickening crack of my kneecap as I knelt down. (I need to work out more, apparently.)
I like going to St. John’s because there is Eucharistic Adoration every day (except Sundays), so when I was there this past week, the Blessed Sacrament, the Body of Christ, was exposed in a gilded monstrance on the altar. The Lord is present in the sacrament, and so He was there with me, perhaps looking back at me as I stared at the altar. This is my very favorite kind of silence. This kind of silence never makes me feel alone.
When I am sitting quietly before the Lord in this way, I am able to resist the urge to constantly be “on”, to fill my mind and senses with noise. I can sit without the need to check, post, write, like, comment. I can set aside my constant desire to be seen and affirmed by others. In this silence, where it’s just me and the Lord, I can just be. Shut everything else off and put it to the side.
In this silence, I can allow things that I’ve pushed down into the depths of my mind to slowly rise to the surface — the really tough stuff, the uncomfortable thoughts, the times when I’ve messed up. Yet, when I’m in church, especially before the Blessed Sacrament, I don’t feel guilty or ashamed of these things anymore, because God knows my heart, He knows that I am not perfect. He knows I screw up regularly. He knows, and yet He loves me still. In this silence can acknowledge all the bad parts, sit with them, and forgive myself, because God has forgiven me.
In this silence, I can just talk to God. Say what’s on my mind. This past Friday as I sat for adoration, I came in with a lot of complicated, intricate issues and tasks ahead of me that I had to take care of, and felt rather burdened by them. I contemplated asking Jesus, “What do I do now?”, even though I knew very well what I had to do. Jesus knew too, of course. There was no booming voice from the heavens giving me an itemized to-do list, nor a soft whisper in my ear speaking words of encouragement. Instead I felt a wave of peace silently wash over me. A sense that everything will fall into place. Everything is going to be taken care of.
“Be not afraid.”