What we need most in order to make progress is to be silent before this great God with our appetite and with our tongue, for the language he best hears is silent love.
Sayings of Light and Love, 132
O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.
“Are you seeking to find God? Then listen to the silence; immerse yourself in silence.”
This simple, yet profound advice comes from Father Jacques de Jésus, O.C.D., the headmaster of the Discalced Carmelite boarding school in Avon, France who was arrested by the Nazis and sent to the harshest forced labor camps at Gusen and Mauthausen during World War II. Like St. Raphael Kalinowski in Poland, who we met on the third day of our novena, and whose experience in a forced labor camp in Siberia prepared him for life in Carmel, so for Père Jacques, life in Carmel prepared him for life as a political prisoner.
And as prisoners, both of them resembled St. John of the Cross: suffering, abandoned, physically tested, yet through it all they were seeking, reaching, listening, grasping for the presence of God. We can imagine them passing through vast interior deserts in silence, en route to their loving encounter with God.
On the eighth day of our novena, we shared an excerpt from John 17, which is often referred to as Jesus’ high priestly prayer. St. Edith Stein offers this brief comment concerning the prayer in her 1936 essay, The Prayer of the Church:
The Savior’s high priestly prayer unveils the mystery of the inner life: the circumincession of the Divine Persons and the indwelling of God in the soul. In these mysterious depths, the work of salvation was prepared and accomplished itself in concealment and silence. And so it will continue until the union of all is actually accomplished at the end of time. The decision for the Redemption was conceived in the eternal silence of the inner divine life.
Small wonder, then, that St. Thérèse understood that hiding in the Face of Christ meant that she would be able to tune out the trivial noise of the world, as we also discovered in the eighth novena meditation.
Father Jacques makes that abundantly clear: “God is eternal silence; God dwells in silence.” We’ll let him continue:
Christ is characteristically serene and silent. (…) That serene silence is the hallmark of Christ. (…)
God is eternal silence; God dwells in silence. He is eternal silence because he is the One who has totally realized his own being because he says all and possesses all. He is infinite happiness and infinite life. All God’s works are marked by this characteristic. Contemplate the Incarnation; it was accomplished in the silence of the Virgin Mary’s chamber at a time when she was in prolonged silence, her door closed. Our Lord’s birth came during the night, while all things were enveloped in silence. That is how the Word of God appeared on earth, and only Mary and Joseph were silently with him. They did not overwhelm him with their questions, for they were accustomed to guarding their innermost thoughts. (…)
Whoever embraces silence, welcomes God and whoever relishes silence, hears God speak. Silence is the echo of God’s eternity and the foundation of the rich teaching of Saint John of the Cross. That teaching in all its richness derives from his prison cell at Toledo. During the months of his solitary confinement there, he accepted his isolation and embraced silence. He became imbued with silence. In turn, that silence revealed to him the true value of suffering, which is at the heart of his teaching concerning the ascent to God. Without this treasured silence, John of the Cross would never have become the great mystical Doctor of the Church that he is. (…)
Silence should penetrate deep within us and occupy every area of our inner home. Thus is our soul transformed into a sanctuary of prayer and recollection. (…) Such silence allows us to listen to the secret voice of God, like the saints, especially St. John of the Cross. (Listen to the Silence, Conference 8)
Have you ever had the opportunity to make a silent retreat? Or to enjoy 30 minutes in a quiet home when the rest of the family is out of the house? Perhaps there is a favorite spot, a “happy place” or some other getaway location, real or imagined, where you virtually or literally can get away from the rush and the noise of your daily commitments. In that space, do you find yourself feeling calmer, more peaceful, better able to think, to relax, to focus, even to pray?
If God dwells in silence, it is in silence that we must seek him. And if God dwells in silence, he is no more attracted to the noise than we are in moments of silence. As we accustom ourselves to silence, we welcome and even crave silence.
It’s in the midst of our welcome, our craving the silence of God that we understand the silence that God desires of us: “the language he best hears is silent love.”
As we have walked together through these novena days with Saint John of the Cross and the commentary offered by the saints of Carmel, we have gained many insights along the way. As we conclude, let’s read St. John’s own prologue to the Sayings of Light and Love; his proposals at the beginning of the collection of sayings form a wonderful summary of what we have learned as we come to the end. Thanks for joining us.
O my God and my delight, for your love I have also desired to give my soul to composing these sayings of light and love concerning you. Since, although I can express them in words, I do not have the works and virtues they imply (which is what pleases you, O my Lord, more than the words and wisdom they contain), may others, perhaps stirred by them, go forward in your service and love – in which I am wanting. I will thereby find consolation, that these sayings be an occasion for your finding in others the things that I lack.
Lord, you love discretion, you love light, you love love; these three you love above the other operations of the soul. Hence these will be sayings of discretion for the wayfarer, of light for the way, and of love in the wayfaring. May there be nothing of worldly rhetoric in them or the long-winded and dry eloquence of weak and artificial human wisdom, which never pleases you. Let us speak to the heart words bathed in sweetness and love that do indeed please you, removing obstacles and stumbling blocks from the paths of many souls who unknowingly trip and unconsciously walk in the path of error – poor souls who think they are right in what concerns the following of your beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in becoming like him, imitating his life, actions, and virtues, and the form of his nakedness and purity of spirit. Father of mercies, come to our aid, for without you, Lord, we can do nothing.
O St. John of the Cross
You were endowed by our Lord with the spirit of self-denial
and a love of the cross.
Obtain for us the grace to follow your example
that we may come to the eternal vision of the glory of God.
O Saint of Christ’s redeeming cross
the road of life is dark and long.
Teach us always to be resigned to God’s holy will
in all the circumstances of our lives
and grant us the special favor
which we now ask of you:
mention your request.
Above all, obtain for us the grace of final perseverance,
a holy and happy death and everlasting life with you
and all the saints in heaven.
All Scripture references in this novena are found on the Bible Gateway website, with the exception of texts drawn from the 1968 Reader’s Edition of the Jerusalem Bible. Selections from the psalter appear in the Liturgy of the Hours.
The novena prayer was composed from approved sources by Professor Michael Ogunu, a member of the Discalced Carmelite Secular Order in Nigeria.
All of the citations from the Sayings of Light and Love are drawn from The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, Revised Edition (1991), translated from the Spanish by Kavanaugh, K and Rodriguez, O with revisions and introductions by Kavanaugh, K, ICS Publications, Washington DC.
Bunel, J 2004, Listen to the Silence - A Retreat with Pere Jacques, translated and edited by Murphy F, ICS Publications, Washington DC.
Stein, E 2014, The Hidden Life: Essays, Meditations, Spiritual Texts, translated from the German by Stein W, ICS Publications, Washington DC.