“What will become of our world,” Cardinal Sarah pleads in his recent The Power of Silence, “if it does not look for intervals of silence? Interior rest and harmony can flow only from silence. Without it, life does not exist. … A tree grows in silence, and … in his mother’s womb, an infant grows in silence” (§23).
As a lifelong city dweller who has always felt uncannily close to God in the midst of noisy urban life, I immediately juxtaposed these thoughts with another passage from an entirely different author. Caryll Houselander, a 20th-century British writer and mystic, describes an experience of what she calls “Christ in man”: “I was in an underground train, a crowded train in which all sorts of people jostled together, sitting and strap-hanging … Quite suddenly I saw with my mind, but as vividly as a wonderful picture, Christ in them all … living in them, dying in them, rejoicing in them, sorrowing in them” (Rocking Horse Catholic, 105-6).
Christ in the chaos of the train or Christ in the silence of the open field and the mother’s womb? The answer is, “both.
” Where humanity is, there God is. Every lit window of a city skyscraper at night shines out from the office or living room or kitchen of a unique, unrepeatable soul made by God for Him. Every lit window proclaims that, within, a drama unfolds: the Good Shepherd calls; do these souls hear and answer?Christ’s friend Martha of Bethany is often presented as the classic example of the busy (and irritated) bee who cooks and serves while her holy sister Mary sits motionless at Our Lord’s feet, absorbing His wisdom. Martha’s problem, however, is not that she cooks and serves but that she does so in anger, letting bitterness at her sister’s inactivity corrode her generosity. She would not have been reprimanded by Our Lord had she carved out within her soul the same solitary space for charity that Mary was physically occupying.
So our workplaces and our subway trains are — must be — as much places for encountering God as is the chapel. We must be interiorly silent and present to God within us, speaking to Him and doing all for love of Him.
And yet, the office and the subway train are not the chapel. Cardinal Sarah is right. We must at times retreat from the noise to actual silence and actual solitude. Maybe it is a yearly retreat. Or 10 minutes before the rest of the family gets up. These places and times of silence will feed our inner yearning for God and enable us to find Him in the crowd.
During this month of May, Mary serves as guide, she who possessed interior silence in the midst of the world and who also sought out moments of solitude. Houselander’s poem “The Birth” depicts this movingly: There was always the Crowd.
Even when helay folded in the darkness of Mary’s womb,she carried him into the crowded city of Bethlehemto be born.
There was a loud voice in the streetssurrounding the stable.
The clinking of glasses,the shouts, the greeting of friends, the tramping of feet and clatter of hoofs,laughter and snatches of song.
Only his Motherpossessed silence.
And in her silenceunder the noise of the crowd,she heard the sound of a streamflowing underground,and breaking through darknessto water the earth.
And she heardthe little snap of a bursting seed,and the sound of a bud breaking.
She heardthe sound of the waters of birth. … Mary,his Mother,stood at the foot of the Cross.
She heard the seedthat had shone in her wombfalling into the ground… And thenthe Wordwas silent. … She heardonly the sound of the little streamthat broke from his side.
But mankindborn againwas laid in her arms,in the body of her dead child.
And then, in the silent moments of Easter morning, Mary’s child rises from death; with Him, the whole world, in both its silence and its noisiness, rises to new life.
Sr. Maria Veritas Marks is a member of the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.