Chambers of Her Heart,
Madonna House & Priestly Formation

CHAPTER 6: THE WORLD OF  SILENCE
Chapter 7 Chapter 5 Contents List

          The over-all structure to this book is to show how the Madonna House community is a creative atmosphere for helping people to listen to the Word of God. We are blessed on the road to true happiness with the Lord when we “hear his word and keep it.” I continue this theme in the remaining Chapters: we need to create a silent heart (this Chapter); learn how to guard our thoughts (Chapter 7); learn how to listen as the boy Jesus did at the feet of the elders and fill our minds with the truth (Chapter 8); and learn how to become a disciple (Chapter 9). The daily experience that seeks to help and foster all these attitudes is the liturgy (Chapter 10).

          “Silence” is not the only atmosphere for hearing the Word of God, but it is one of the most necessary. By the word “silence” I mean something more comprehensive than physical silence. I mean a quieting of all the noises arising from your superficial needs, addictions, fantasies, wayward desires, and so on. I’m concerned with quieting all the many voices from your mind, emotions, will, that hinder the hearing of the one Voice that is different from all other voices. The exciting thing about silence is this hearing of the voice of the Beloved. A first step towards this interior silence is actual, physical silence.

          In the prehistoric days when I was in the seminary (1961-67), the renewal of priestly formation was one of the hot topics. The Council was in progress, and much was being written about the renewal of the seminaries. One aspect of this renewal concerned the “opening up of seminaries to the world.” Were seminarians being formed in places too remote from the world in which they would serve? If too secluded, would they find difficulty is relating to the people in the parish when they were ordained? Were they too isolated from the world events in which their people had to live? Did their separateness cause unhealthy self-centredness? Were they cut off from the hopes and fears and trials of their people? The question was posed in endless ways.

          Of course, we do not want to turn out priests who are uninformed about the world, isolated from events, self-centred, cut off from the people they will serve. The seminary cannot give birth to priests who neither understand their future parishioners nor are able to speak in a language ordinary people can relate to. These words from the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World of Vatican II are quoted so often because they are so important:

          The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the men of our time, especially those who are poor or afflicted in anyway, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts. Christians cherish a feeling of deep solidarity with the human race and its history.

          And yet, and yet, how does one get an inner Gospel distance from “the human race and its history” so that one has clarity of vision and true freedom of action? How does one avoid “kneeling before the world” (to use a phrase of Jacques Maritain in his book after the Council, The Peasant of the Garrone) instead of transforming the world in the light of the Gospel? How to be in the world and not of it? (“You are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. If you were of the world the world would love what is its own.”)

          I remind you that I am not speaking in this book precisely about seminary life which will require a more gradual and informed contact with society. I am concerned with a time which would be appropriate for anyone’s Christian formation, man or woman. There should be a period comparable, in some ways, with the traditional noviciate of Religious Orders. During this time – in this case, pre-seminary – the accent should not be on mission or pastoral skills or keeping up with current events. The noviciate is a time of immersion of one’s life in God. It is precisely a time of concentrating on one’s relationship with God.

          Yes, yes – if you’ll excuse the expression that has become all too negative – it is a time of “God and me.” If you do not have a profound “God and me” relationship, you will not be able to be the leaven in the mass of the world. For the message you will be called upon to witness to and preach is that God has reconciled the world to himself in Christ. You, the messenger, the witness, must know the reality of that reconciliation first of all in your own heart. Of course it’s a life-time task this, but you must begin with some kind of exclusive attention to it.

          Our Madonna House program seeks to offer very, very basic formation in various aspects of your life with the Lord. One criticism of our program is precisely that it is too remote, out in the Canadian woods some place. The guests have almost no contact with “the world.” (You can ask yourself: Have you already had too much contact with the world?) You may be tempted to think that we are guilty of all the objections I mentioned at the beginning.

          As I said above, “separation from the world” is not primarily a geographical phenomenon. I understand “world” in the sense Jesus meant it when he said, “You are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.” “World” is not first of all a geographic place but a state of attachment to things which hinder our life with the Lord, prevent us from hearing him as the Word.

          In this sense “world” is a dimension of all of our lives. The Lord calls us to love him with all our minds, all our hearts, all our strength, and then to love everyone and everything in him. The understanding behind novitiates and the Vatican’s call for pre-seminarian programs is that a specific period is needed to centre one more in God before embarking on one’s vocation, whatever it might be.

          Louis Bouyer expresses well the point I am trying to make:

          Mark it well: if the transmission of the gifts of God [by the priest] presupposes a previous and particularly effective reception of the divine gifts, it must also presuppose a certain practise, if only temporary, of a monastic or at least quasi-monastic life. He who wishes to be particularly consecrated to the `affairs of God,’ must begin by placing himself, at least for a time, outside of the world and its ways. This life of a pilgrim and a wanderer to which the monk commits himself unreservedly, should be lived by the candidate for the priesthood at least for a time. (Introduction to Spirituality, 22)

          It is significant that the great Cardinal Mercier, in the early decades of the 20th century, in a series of conferences to his seminarians, devoted three of them to silence, recollection, and separation from the world. He was convinced that although the diocesan priest must give himself generously to the world, he, more than anyone else, must be “unworldly”:

          Unless the priest is unworldly, in the sense which Christ trained His apostles to be unworldly, he cannot be spiritually effective; if the seminary does not provide the opportunity for this sort of formation at a still impressionable age, what means will? Personal formation is often suggested as the answer, but even in optimum conditions personal formation is difficult enough. Is it realistic to expect that a better result can be expected from more difficult circumstances? (Conferences, 20)

          One of the genuine signs of a call from God is the realization that one’s activities are not yet deeply enough rooted in God’s love. It’s not that one believes that activity in the marketplace is wrong or bad. This would be contrary to our understanding of the Gospel. Seeking union with God in and through service to others is the royal road to the Lord. There is an absolute sense in which the priest must go into the world as the Lord commanded.

          But how to prepare for this? There is a genuine grace from God – a realization greatly to be desired – that one is not yet able to be involved in the marketplace in a Gospel way; that one’s vision and affections and motives are not sufficiently God-centred. There is a realization that one must give up certain “involvement” for a while until the source of one’s activities is more rooted in the love of God.

          Some reflections on the lives of community members who were artists when they first came here (and still are) may help to clarify what I mean.

          Artists, whether painters, actors or actresses, or musicians, often have a tremendous need to stop practicing their particular art form when they come here. Why? Because they know, with the fine sensitivity of an artist, that their art is not deeply enough rooted in the love of God. They have a sense they are not really touching, or living out of, their deeper personality. They are living a “persona,” a mask, and they’re seeking the real person beneath. This was one of the movements in their hearts that drew them to Madonna House, whether they were conscious of it at the time or not. They came to make God the centre of their lives, and not their art.

          Thus, sometimes for years after they come here, they are almost constitutionally unable to exercise their art because the Lord is calling them to purify their hearts, and to learn how to act only out of love for him; how to centre their talents in his grace. They know intuitively that this has not yet happened, and so they have the need to stop exercising their art until the depths of their personalities are purified.

          You who are reading this may not be an artist, but a similar instinct has drawn you here. You have a need to get beyond superficial living, beyond your superficial personality. You’re on a quest for your true person in Christ.

          When I left to join the Trappists in 1955, a poem by Thomas Merton, at the very end of his autobiography The Seven Story Mountain, spoke exactly to my experience at the time (and describes this instinct to get away from superficial living I’m referring to here). This is an action of the Holy Spirit, driving people into the desert of detachment, as one seeks to give the Lord one’s entire life. He entitled it, “The Christ of the burnt Men”:

          I will give you what you desire. I will lead you into solitude, I will lead you by the way that you cannot possibly understand, because I want it to be the quickest way.

          Everything that touches you shall burn you, and you will draw your hand away in pain, until you have withdrawn yourself from all things. Then you will be all alone.

          Everything that can be desired will sear you, and brand you with a cautery, and you will become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men. (pp.422-43)

          I don’t know if this poem speaks to you. Things do not burn because they are bad. Rather, we sense that they are an obstacle on our path. We need to disentangle ourselves from all that is not God, at least for a time. Things that used to attract us have somehow lost their meaning in our search for authenticity. They burn, that is, they now repel us. St. Augustine said that all the beautiful things he loved cried out, “Not me, not me.” They were not God, and they were not leading him to God.

          This spiritual “burning”, this recoiling from creatures in order to re-establish inner harmony, takes place in relationship to everything in our human existence: harmful things like drugs and addictive elements; distorted relationship with friends and even family members; talents and skills; plans for the future. Such withdrawal is a kind of spiritual detoxification, an interior “drying out” and going “cold turkey,” to use expressions from the world of drugs. We are actually drugged on many things. A period of separation is meant to give a strong impetus to the distancing that must occur.

          Such a grace is greatly to be desired by all in the beginning of their vocational search. And so there must be places where this disengagement can be facilitated, understood, guided, and fostered. Are there such places? Yes, we believe Madonna House is such a place.

          In this Chapter I would like to speak about this distancing from things, especially in relation to physical noise and all the cacophony of sound that blocks out the more receptive and contemplative dimensions of our being. The goal is interior silence, what Catherine called the “poustinia of the heart.” There is an inner work to be done here, what is called in the tradition the “guarding of thoughts.” But the first step towards this is external silence.

          Modern society is saturated with noise pollution. Silence and solitude are kind of endangered species. George Bernanos said that modern life is nothing but a vast conspiracy against the interior life. And once, when Kierkegaard was asked what is the one thing he would do for the modern world if he was able, he said immediately, “I would restore silence.”

          As I said, an inner silence of heart is one of the goals of this separation from the world. We hope that you acquire, during your stay with us, a taste for silence and solitude. A healthy love of silence – which is really being at home with yourself – and is part of being a mature Christian, indeed, part of being a mature person.

          We are all very selective when reading the Gospel. One who is very actively orientated will see only the Lord’s preaching and teaching in the marketplaces, how he went into the “dives” of his day to encounter the lost sheep of Israel. Christ’s thirty years in Nazareth are passed over by many. Nor do action-orientated people advert very much to his frequent – I believe daily – periods of withdrawal to the mountains at night, his early risings in the morning, to pray, to be alone with his Father.

          He didn’t go apart simply to give us a good example. That too. But he came to reveal not only who God is but who we are. He came to reveal our true humanity. His withdrawal to pray was an essential lesson in being human.

          A desire to be alone with God has always been a characteristic of those who love him: “I to my Beloved and my Beloved to me,” says the Canticle of Canticles. Lovers, on occasion, desire to be alone. You might seriously ask yourself whether you really like to be alone at times and speak with God. If the answer is no, please don’t rationalize it away as more in keeping with the call to be involved in the marketplace. Fr. Bouyer again: “A life that does not resolutely make room for silence and recollection (necessarily solitary) cannot be a Christian life, for it cannot be a spiritual life; in fact, it cannot even be a human life worthy of the name” (ibid. 220).

          There is a kind of wanting to be alone that is not centred on God’s presence. This may not be exactly harmful or self-centred. We all need to “get away” once in a while. Artists seek silence to create. But the Christian goal is to be alone so that we can experience better the presence of God.

          I would like to recommend two books on silence (although only the actual experience of silence can really give you the spiritual taste of its joys and fruits.)

          One is Max Picard’s The World of Silence. It is the most beautiful and profound exposition I have ever read on how silence is really the natural environment in which everything lives and grows. Hasn’t everyone, at some time or other, been transported into the amazing world of silence in the woods, or along the seashore. (Natural sounds are not inimical to this kind of silence.) So many poets and writers have sung the praises of such an experience. Silence, Picard says, is some kind of natural icon of God: it’s immensity, its all-pervasiveness, its complete penetration of everything, mediates the Presence behind all reality. Silence is perhaps the greatest natural icon of Gods presence. I highly recommend this book.

          The second book (which I have already mentioned), is Catherine Doherty’s classic Poustinia. A number of years ago the Catholic University of America put out a series of volumes entitled The Catholic Tradition. It was an attempt to make a summary of the best writings from our two-thousand year Catholic tradition. An excerpt from Poustinia is in the last volume on spirituality. This is an indication of the depth of the book; it is also a recognition of who Catherine is in the history of the modern Church.      

Poustinia concentrates on solitude as a place of prayer and intercession, as a place for purifying the passions, listening to the word of God, and becoming a true theologian. Here I mention briefly the poustinia as a place to foster within you the contemplative dimension of your soul.

          Since the Enlightenment (a period that Chesterton says had everything but light), knowledge is evaluated in terms of power. (I saw an ad on TV just the other day that said, in big letters, “Knowledge is Power.”) We think of knowledge in a utilitarian way: to get a better job, influence people, change the environment and society.

          The danger is that we can think of our faith knowledge in a similar way, as an endless series of statements to be criticized, doubted sometimes, gathered for use in teaching catechetics. All well and good. However, the goal of all knowledge is contemplation.

          In the ancient traditions of all cultures, the goal of knowledge was contemplation, that is, that truth is ultimately meant to enrich the soul, to be feasted upon as we feast upon a beautiful sunset. Truth allows the soul to come to rest. You probably never thought of yourself as becoming a contemplative! In the Catholic world this word still has a sort of esoteric meaning: contemplation is something religious do in monasteries. And yes, in our theology of prayer, it does have a more technical meaning. But I understand it here as simply resting in a truth, focusing on it, relishing it. We can do this even naturally as when we contemplate a beautiful scene of nature, or inwardly contemplate a philosophical truth such as the wonder of simply being.

          In the very opening statement of Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, we read:

          The Church is essentially both human and divine, visible but endowed with invisible realities, zealous in action and dedicated to contemplation, present in the world, but as a pilgrim, so constituted that in her the human is directed toward and subordinated to the divine, the visible to the invisible action to contemplation, and this present world to that city yet to come, the object of our quest.   

          In a footnote in Venite Seorsum, a post-conciliar document, and one of the best contemporary statements on the contemplative life in the Church, Pope John XXIII said this: “The contemplative life! It constitutes one of the fundamental structures of the Holy Church. It has been present during all the phases of her bimillenary history.” Yes, he is referring here to the monastic, cloistered states in the life of the Church. There have always been people who go apart for a life of prayer, contemplation, and penance. This is a fundamental dimension of the Church’s life, as it represents, on an institutional level, an essential dimension of the Christian.

          This means that every Christian must strive to have a contemplative dimension in his or her life, a place where he or she simply relishes the mysteries of the faith without any utilitarian purpose. The goal of the mind is contemplation, not endless inquiry, doubt, or the acquisition of information.

          Among the many graces given to Catherine was an appreciation of this fundamental contemplative dimension of the human person. And the Holy Spirit led her to erect poustinias, little cabins in the woods, where people could go to develop this aspect of their hearts, and of their relationship to the mysteries of faith.

          We have twenty or more such cabins. I doubt whether there is any other ecclesial community if the world which provides so many opportunities for solitude. Many in the community go to a poustinia once a week. Whereas in the beginning of their poustinia experience this going apart may have seemed very unusual, now they see it as a normal part of their Christian life, as normal as the liturgy or manual labor. People say, “I am going to poustinia today.” This going apart has enormously enriched our personal and communal lives. It has developed in all of us this fundamental dimension of contemplation: the ability to relish the mysteries of faith for no other reason than for the spiritual nourishment of the mind and heart. In our small way we witness to this dimension of the Church’s life to which all are called.

          Most of the truths for contemplation are found in the scriptures. This is the principle book of the poustinia. One of the courses I taught to the pre-sems was called “Praying the Scriptures.” The Scriptures, especially the words of Christ, are God actually speaking to us. Thus, the Scriptures are primarily to be prayed, not simply read or studied. Silence helps us to really hear these words as spoken by the Lord; helps us to separate these sacred words from all the other words buzzing around our minds. This is called, in the tradition, lectio divina, sacred reading.

          We prayerfully read the words of scripture in silence as being addressed to us personally by our Lord. Then we reflect upon them, ask the Holy Spirit about their meaning for our lives. This is meditation. We then speak back to the Lord who has addressed us. This is prayer. Aware of this presence of the Beloved, we rest for a few moments in his loving awareness of us, and in the mysteries of the faith. This is contemplation.

          But contemplation may happen with any of the profound truths we come across. “If anyone loves me my Father will love him and we will come to him and make our home in him.” We may rest for a few moments in the truth that God dwells in us. And so with all the beautiful truths of our faith.

          These four moments I have described really contain all the basic elements of Christian prayer. This lectio divina was the method of the desert fathers and mothers, and of all the great fathers of the Church and theologians. The contemplation of the biblical truths was the fountain of all their profound insights.

          This way of praying the scriptures will be valuable for the whole of your Christian life, whatever the Lord’s present plan is for you. Some day you may study the scriptures – its history, genres, theories of interpretation, and so on. All well and good, and necessary. But we should all tremble a bit at the words of Jesus to the teachers of his day : “You diligently study the scripture because you think that by them you possess eternal life. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent” (Jn 5:37-39).

          The silence of the poustinia, and all the other ways you try to acquire a silent heart, will foster in you this indwelling of the Word. By our silent speaking back to God in prayer, the Word begins to take on flesh within us, dwell in us as a living Word, and not merely as an intellectual idea. At the close of the Book of Job we read: “Before, I knew you only by hearsay; but now, having seen you with my own eyes….” This doesn’t mean that Job had a vision.  Rather, he had some experience of the truth that God cannot be called to account, and that suffering may, in God’s wisdom, have some value which is not understandable by human reason.

          “Hearsay” is a good word for formal study. When we study we receive ideas from other people. It is an intellectual exercise wherein the mind seeks to understand and even dominate the text or subject; that is, we submit the subject to our understanding. There is a place for this.

          The goal for receiving the knowledge of the mysteries of faith is different: our minds are subject to the Lord implanting the mysteries in our hearts, so we can “make them our own.” Then, when we speak or teach, we speak out of a personal, assimilated knowledge, and not by “hearsay.”

          Often priests preach by hearsay. You can tell the difference. They then use big words unrelated to the audience, and people do not understand. One of Catherine’s pleas to seminarians and priests was to speak to the laity in simple words. Here she is talking about teaching people how to pray:

          Please teach us, in ordinary language, that prayer indeed is life. Tell us about it in our own limited vocabulary. Leave out all the big words. Love does not necessarily need them. And you who are what you are because you are in love with Love, who is God – you of all people, I know, must find these simply, one-syllable words that will make the prayer of contemplation easy for us, your future children. (DS, 16)

          We could apply this plea of Catherine’s to the teaching of all the mysteries of faith. “Hearsay knowledge” must become “seeing with your own eyes.” How does this happen? I think mostly through silent prayer, where we speak back to God in simple words, just as he has spoken to us in simple words. The Lord then implants the mysteries in our hearts. It is out of this “fullness of heart that the mouth speaks” then. Believe me, people will know if you are speaking to them in words of others or in words that you have made your own through prayer.

          One of the desired goals of our Madonna House formation, therefore, is to give you a taste of the riches of silence, where “heart speaks to heart,” where you learn how to speak to others about God in the same simple language he has spoken to you. The Lord told so many stories because we like stories, we understand them, like children.

          Your first experience in the poustinia will be a stark discipline. You will be fasting; the only book will be the Scriptures; there will be no radio or TV; no other people there except you and the Lord. Without such discipline we cannot re-fashion our lives in Christ. It is to this topic of discipline we now turn.

. . . o o o . . .

Chapter 7 Chapter 6 Contents List