Finding silence and embracing loss

6 mins read

We live in a noisy world –and it’s not just audible noise.

Take the small computer I carry in my pocket, for example, the small screen that tries to send me notifications for everything: the weather, what store near me has a sale, what a friend of mine had for lunch, a game I haven’t played for ages. And the list goes on, seemingly endlessly.

Peace has been an elusive search of mine for years. I first recognized it in 2010, after the sudden death of my brother-in-law. For some reason — call me young and stupid — I thought I could “accomplish” peace that year, call it done, move along to the next thing.

The search for peace — I now consider it a never-ending quest — has led me to the idea of silence. Well, no. Not an idea. The practice of silence. I thought silence was just a box to check off of my list: prayer, check; breakfast, check; silence, check.

It can be that, I’ve found. But it promises so much more.

Not just being quiet

“The greatest things are accomplished in silence,” writes Romano Guardini in his book “The Lord,” “not in the clamor and display of superficial eventfulness, but in the deep clarity of inner vision; in the almost imperceptible start of decision, in the quiet overcoming and hidden sacrifice. … The silent forces are the strong forces. Let us turn now to the stillest event of all, stillest because it came from the remoteness beyond the noise of any possible intrusion — from God.”

The noise in my head outweighs the things my phone tries to send to me, the words other people hurl my way, the messages and marketing and media that never. Seem. To. Stop.

“It is necessary to leave our interior turmoil in order to find God,” Cardinal Robert Sarah writes in “The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise” (Ignatius Press, $18.95). “Despite the agitations, the busyness, the easy pleasures, God remains silently present. He is in us like a thought, a word, and a presence whose secret sources are buried in God himself, inaccessible to human inspection.”

Resting in God is a form of silence. Sarah continues, writing, “Solitude is the best state in which to hear God’s silence. For someone who wants to find silence, solitude is the mountain that he must climb.”

Though I’m an inveterate extrovert, I’ve found a sort of loneliness in my recent years of motherhood. I’ve also found myself “touched out” — just please, no one touch me anymore. Don’t ask me for one. More. Thing. Just leave me alone. But what Cardinal Sarah is talking about, if I’m understanding him as a lay reader and a struggling human, is that it’s not about a lack of noise or a lack of people. It’s not about a lack of anything.

It’s about filling yourself with God. It’s about the space inside you, within you, around you; it’s about that God-sized hole St. Augustine so famously referred to in his “Confessions.” Fill that hole with anything else, and you’re left empty. You’re left seeking. You’re left.

Just as I was grasping this reality — that silence isn’t just a lack of noise — an event rocked me to my not-so-silent core: The most important woman in my life died.

Suffering leads to silence

We knew it was coming. Her health had been declining. There was no surprise, not really.

It happened without fanfare, and without a lot of noise. In fact, she made very little noise on that Palm Sunday when I last saw her, held her hand, stroked her head. When I arrived at her bedside in the ICU, she had a mask on her face to help her breathe. She hadn’t been conscious for quite some time, and there was no promise when — or if — she would be.

But when she heard my voice, she woke up. She looked at me, and her eyes said volumes. I talked to her, said silly things that I don’t even remember and that I wish had been important and meaningful.

I was present. I was there. And my presence was, without a doubt, the gift it needed to be. And yet in spite of all this, I found myself longing to do something.

“Man wants to ‘do,’ but above all else he must ‘be,'” Cardinal Sarah reminds us. “In silent prayer, man is fully human.”I couldn’t pray as I sat there. I could only wait. I could only trade off to sit in the waiting room and tell inconsequential stories. I had prayed on the hours-long drive. I had considered that I was getting ready for Mass, that I was wearing the red of Passion Sunday, that it was March 25, feast of the Annunciation and Mary’s great “Yes” to God.

But there in the waiting room and there by her bedside, I could only sit. I could only function.

There’s comfort in action. Knowing you can do. That’s how we all live, isn’t it? We do, until we fall over in exhaustion and can grab a few winks before we do some more.

Death is never easy, not when it’s a surprise and not when it’s expected. It’s hard in many of the same ways that birth is hard.

An end game of sorts

I’ve heard that tears are a gift, and in a room where everyone’s eyes are red and yours are dry, I can concede that they may just be.

At the end, when the woman who was, perhaps, the greatest impact on my life took her last breath and only her body remained, my eyes were dry.

She was still there. And yet, she was not. What had just happened?

“Our words inebriate us; they confine us to what is created. Bewitched and imprisoned by the noise of human speech, we run the risk of designing worship to our specifications, a god in our own image. Words bring with them the temptation of the golden calf! Only silence leads man beyond words, to the mystery, to worship in spirit and in truth. Silence is a form of mystagogy; it brings us into the mystery without spoiling it.”

I had to wonder: Was Cardinal Sarah talking about death? About life?

On the drive home, another long series of hours, in which I embraced the silence and paused at a favorite shrine to kneel and, finally, feel a few drops from my eyes. I found myself leaning into the silence once more.

It was a gift.

Was she there? Will she be there? Am I looking for her?

I shouldn’t be. She is not there. She has moved on.

The still, small voice

God speaks with a still, small voice. His voice is always still and small, but maybe it’s because it’s always at one level and Satan is always fighting to be louder.

“Silence can make it possible to survive in the most precarious situations. Tortures, ill treatment, and torments, however diabolical they may be, will start to be calmed by a silence that is directed toward God. In a mysterious but real way, he supports us by suffering with us. He is inseparably united to man in all his tribulations; it is one thing to rebel against God because he remained silent during our sufferings; it is another thing to entrust our suffering to him in silence, to offer it to him so that he might transform it into an instrument of salvation by associating it with Christ’s suffering.”

Cardinal Sarah is speaking, of course, of the huge, horrific things that people face when they’re in concentration camps.

He can’t possibly be speaking of the small hurdles and tribulations I face: the death of a grandmother, whining kids, and a host of what can only eye-rollingly be called “first-world problems” and dismissed.



My journey toward silence — and toward peace — has led me to realize that Christ is nothing if not personal. And by being personal, he’s very interested and involved in the nitty-gritty of my particular life, however much I may try to pass it off as not important enough.

That’s the thing with God. We are all important enough. Every single one of us.

In face of death, difficulty, sorrow, suffering and even life, silence is a balm. It is necessary. And sitting at the deathbed of someone who can’t talk to you, who can’t do anything but blink and move her feet, the noise you make isn’t what matters.