Editor’s note: This week The Compass begins a Lenten series, “Ways to Jump Start Your Faith.” Local columnists draw on their experiences to offer ways for everyday Catholics to more fully experience the penitential season of Lent.
I think I discovered God while delivering newspapers. Between the ages of 12 and 15, I walked a paper route through a very quiet neighborhood every day after school. Nearly all the homes were occupied by retired folks, many of whom waited at their doors or on their porches for my arrival. If I was late, they weren’t happy. This was in the mid- to late-1970s, before iPhones, iPods, portable CD players, or any other portable music player. There were no earbuds. I walked in silence, listening to the tweets of robins and the occasional bark of a neighborhood dog. Mostly, I listened to my own thoughts and imagination. And that’s where I discovered God.
Certainly, I had known about God. Ours was a fairly typical Midwestern Catholic home of the time. We prayed together before all meals, attended the 9:45 a.m. Mass at Sacred Heart Church every Sunday morning and listened attentively as my mother read us stories from a children’s Bible. We even carpooled with the neighbors to religious education classes every Monday evening.
God, religion and faith were completely woven into the fabric of our lives. Yet, by the time I entered my middle school years, the hard and fast concrete of indoctrination was beginning to crack on the surface. That’s where the hour-long walk in silence every afternoon paid dividends.
Musicians tell us it’s the silence between the notes that makes the music; artists tell us negative space gives shape and meaning to positive space; and an ancient Zen saying tells us it’s the space between the bars that cages the tiger. Across time and cultures, spiritualists of all traditions have emphasized the importance of silence.
Jesus understood this completely and practiced it regularly, going into the desert or up on a mountain when he wanted to connect with God. I use the word connect here quite intentionally. He didn’t want to simply talk to God, he wanted to connect. And that meant listening. If Jesus — living in a time and place without televisions, computers, car engines, radios and telephones — needed to get away from the noise to commune with God, how much more do we need to do so?
Still waters run deep, the saying goes, but we so seldom take time for stillness. No wonder there is so little depth in our culture today. In his New Year’s Day message, Pope Francis encouraged us to set aside time for silence and suggested we resolve to give up empty chatter. It might be too late for a New Year’s resolution, but it’s just in time for Lent. By taking the Holy Father’s sage advice and giving up empty chatter, we can create more room for silence and thus more room for meaningful contemplation. Perhaps, most importantly, we can fast from all the negative words that erode our joy, feed our anxieties and keep us on a superficial plane apart from depth and meaning.
During a weeklong retreat a few years ago, our director imposed a 24-hour fast — to include silence. From Wednesday evening at five until Thursday evening, we were directed to consume only bread and water while speaking to no one. As we feasted over lunch on Wednesday in preparation for the fast, it was revealed I had brought my computer, phone and iPad with me on retreat and had been checking my emails several times each day. Our retreat director was not impressed. She strongly suggested I make technology a part of my fast as well. A large part of me wanted to believe she was joking. The mere thought of it stirred anxiety. Not check my email? Why, that would be irresponsible! What if someone in my office needed to reach me? Of course, she was completely serious and I reluctantly complied.
I spent the entire day Thursday walking silently through the woods, alone with birds, brooks and silence, just as I had been on my paper route all those years before. The conversation turned inward. I listened. Fasting, I discovered, isn’t about giving up food, conversation with others, or even technology. Those small sacrifices are just outward expressions which pull us along an inward journey. Fasting is about giving up self-importance, self-preoccupation and, by doing so, making room for God.
We need to fast occasionally not to escape the world nor to deny the world, but to be able to enter the world with a pure heart and a true soul. We need to step back from the empty chatter, the relentless buzz, and the constant stimulation; we need to slow down and walk in silence sometimes so we can be present to the depths of love and awake to the whispers of God’s creation.
Deacon Steve is co-founder of Whatsoever You Do, Inc., and ministers at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Green Bay.