On the Silence of Jesus

An Attentive, Silent, Open Heart Is More Important Than Many Words

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VATICAN CITY, MARCH 7, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the Italian-language catechesis Benedict XVI gave today during the general audience held in St. Peter’s Square. The Pope concluded his series of reflections on the prayer of Jesus by today considering His silence.

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Dear brothers and sisters,

In a previous series of catecheses I spoke about the prayer of Jesus, and I would not wish to conclude this reflection without briefly pausing to consider the theme of Jesus’ silence, which is so important in our relationship with God. 

In the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini, I made reference to the role that silence assumes in the life of Jesus, especially on Golgotha: “Here we find ourselves before the "word of the cross" (1 Corinthians 1:18). The word is muted; it becomes mortal silence, for it has "spoken" exhaustively, holding back nothing of what it had to tell us (n. 12). Faced with this silence of the cross, St. Maximus the Confessor places upon the lips of the Mother of God this touching phrase: "Wordless is the Word of the Father, who made every creature which speaks; lifeless are the eyes of the one at whose word and whose nod all living things move". (The Life of Mary, no. 89: Marian texts of the first millennium, 2, Rome 1989, p. 253).

The cross of Christ not only portrays the silence of Jesus as His final word to the Father; it also reveals that God speaks through the silence: “The silence of God, the experience of the distance of the almighty Father, is a decisive stage in the earthly journey of the Son of God, the incarnate Word. Hanging from the wood of the cross, he lamented the suffering caused by that silence: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46). Advancing in obedience to his very last breath, in the obscurity of death, Jesus called upon the Father. He commended himself to him at the moment of passage, through death, to eternal life: ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’ (Luke 23:46)” (Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini, 21). The experience of Jesus on the cross speaks deeply of the situation of the man who prays and of the culmination of prayer: after having heard and acknowledged God’s Word, we must also measure ourselves by God’s silence, which is an important expression of the same divine Word.

The interplay of word and silence that marks the prayer of Jesus during his entire earthly life -- especially on the cross -- also touches our own lives of prayer, in two ways. The first concerns our welcoming of God’s Word. Interior and exterior silence are necessary in order that this word may be heard. And this is especially difficult in our own day. In fact, ours is not an age which fosters recollection; indeed, at times one has the impression that people have a fear of detaching themselves, even for a moment, from the barrage of words and images that mark and fill our days. For this reason, in the already mentioned Exhortation Verbum Domini, I recalled the necessity of our being educated in the value of silence: “Rediscovering the centrality of God's word in the life of the Church also means rediscovering a sense of recollection and inner repose. The great patristic tradition teaches us that the mysteries of Christ all involve silence. Only in silence can the word of God find a home in us, as it did in Mary, woman of the word and, inseparably, woman of silence” (n. 21).

This principle – that without silence we neither hear nor listen nor receive the word – applies above all to personal prayer, but it also pertains to our liturgies: in order to facilitate an authentic listening, they must also be rich in moments of silence and unspoken receptivity. St. Augustine’s observation forever holds true: Verbo crescente, verba deficient -- “When the Word of God increases, the words of men fail” (cf. Sermon 288; 5: PL 38, 1307; Sermon 120,2: PL 38,677). The Gospels often present Jesus -- especially at times of crucial decisions -- withdrawing alone to a place set apart from the crowds and from his own disciples, in order to pray in the silence and to abide in his filial relationship with God. Silence is capable of excavating an interior space in our inmost depths so that God may abide there, so that his Word may remain in us, so that love for him may be rooted in our minds and in our hearts and animate our lives. The first way, then: to learn silence, [to learn] the openness to listening that opens us to the other, to the Word of God.

However, there is a second important element in the relation of silence with prayer. For in fact there exists not only our silence, which disposes us to listening to God’s Word; often in our prayer, we find ourselves before the silence of God; we experience a sense of abandonment; it seems to us that God is not listening and that He does not respond. But this silence of God - as Jesus also experienced - is not a sign of His absence. The Christian knows well that the Lord is present and that he is listening, even in the darkness of suffering, rejection and solitude. Jesus reassures the disciples and each one of us that God knows well our needs at every moment of life. He teaches the disciples: “In praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Matthew 6:7-8): an attentive, silent, open heart is more important than many words. 

God knows us intimately, more deeply than we know ourselves, and He loves us: and knowing this should suffice. In the Bible, Job’s experience is particularly significant in this regard. This man quickly loses everything: family, wealth, friends, health; it seems that God’s attitude towards him is precisely one of abandonment, of total silence. And yet Job, in his relationship with God, speaks with God, cries out to God; in his prayer, despite everything, he preserves his faith intact and, in the end, he discovers the value of his experience and of God’s silence. And thus, in the end, turning to his Creator, he is able to conclude: “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee” (Job 42:5): nearly all of us know God only through hearsay, and the more we are open to His silence and to our silence, the more we begin to know Him truly. This supreme confidence, which opens way to a profound encounter with God, matures in silence. St Francis Severio prayed, saying to the Lord: I love you, not because you can give me heaven or condemn me to hell, but because you are my God. I love You, because You are You.

As we approach the conclusion of our reflections on the prayer of Jesus, a number of the teachings from the Catechism of the Catholic Church come to mind: “The drama of prayer is fully revealed to us in the Word who became flesh and dwells among us. To seek to understand his prayer through what his witnesses proclaim to us in the Gospel is to approach the holy Lord Jesus as Moses approached the burning bush: first to contemplate him in prayer, then to hear how he teaches us to pray in order to know how he hears our prayer” (n. 2598).

And how does Jesus teach us to pray? In the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church we find a clear answer: “Jesus teaches us to pray not only with the Our Father” -- certainly the central act in his teaching on how we are to pray -- “but also when [He himself] prays. In this way he teaches us, in addition to the content, the dispositions necessary for every true prayer: purity of heart that seeks the Kingdom and forgives one’s enemies, bold and filial faith that goes beyond what we feel and understand, and watchfulness that protects the disciple from temptation” (n. 544).

In surveying the Gospels, we saw how the Lord is the interlocutor, friend, witness and teacher of our prayer. In Jesus the newness of our dialogue with God is revealed: filial prayer, which the Father awaits from His children. And we learn from Jesus how constant prayer helps us to interpret our lives, to make decisions, to recognize and accept our vocation, to discover the talents that God had given us, to daily fulfill His Will, which is the only path to attaining fulfillment in our lives.

The prayer of Jesus indicates to us who are often preoccupied by the efficiency of our work and the concrete results we achieve that we need to stop and to experience moments of intimacy with God, “detaching ourselves” from the daily din in order to listen, to go to the “root” that supports and nourishes life. One of the most beautiful moments in the prayer of Jesus is precisely the moment when he -- in order to face the disease, distress and limitations of his interlocutors -- turns to his Father in prayer, thus teaching those around him where the source of hope and salvation is to be sought.

I already recalled the moving example of Jesus’ prayer at the tomb of Lazarus. The Evangelist John recounts: “So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, ‘Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. I knew that thou hearest me always, but I have said this on account of the people standing by, that they may believe that thou didst send me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’” (John 11:41-43).

But Jesus reaches the heights of the depth of his prayer to the Father during his Passion and Death, when he pronounces his supreme “yes” to the plan of God and reveals how the human will finds its fulfillment precisely in adhering fully to the divine will, rather than the opposite. In Jesus’ prayer, in his cry to the Father on the Cross, “all the troubles, for all time, of humanity enslaved by sin and death, all the petitions and intercessions of salvation history are summed up … Here the Father accepts them and, beyond all hope, answers them beyond all hope, answers them by raising his Son. Thus is fulfilled and brought to completion the drama of prayer in the economy of creation and salvation” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2606).

Dear brothers and sisters, with trust let us ask the Lord to enable to live out the journey of our filial prayer, by learning day by day from the Only Begotten Son made man for us how to turn to God. The words of St. Paul on the Christian life apply also to our own prayer: “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

[Translation by Diane Montagna]

[In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In concluding this series of catecheses on the prayer of Jesus, I would like to speak of the importance of silence in our relationship with God. In Christ’s own life and prayer, and especially in his experience of the Cross, we see a constant interplay of word and silence. Jesus’ mortal silence on the Cross is his final word to the Father, his supreme prayer. To hear God’s word requires the cultivation of outward and inward silence, so that his voice can resound within our hearts and shape our lives. But Jesus teaches us that God also speaks to us, especially at times of difficulty, through his silence, which invites us to deeper faith and trust in his promises. Jesus is our great teacher of prayer; from his prayer we learn to speak with confidence to our heavenly Father as his beloved sons and daughters. In this filial dialogue we are also taught to recognize God’s many gifts and to obey his will, which gives meaning and direction to our lives.

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I welcome the many student groups present at today’s Audience, including those from the United States Coast Guard Academy, the Catholic University of America, Saint Mary’s Seminary and the Franciscan University of Steubenville. My greetings and prayerful good wishes also go to the participants in the Congress of the International Society of Plastic Regenerative Surgery. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors, including those from England, Demark and the United States, I invoke God’s abundant blessings.

© Copyright 2012 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

[In Italian, he said:]

Lastly, my thoughts go to young people, to the sick and to newlyweds. May the Lenten journey we are on lead you, dear young people, to maturity of faith in Christ; dear sick, may it increase your hope in Him who always sustains us in trial; may it help you, dear newlyweds, to make your family life a mission of faithful and generous love.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]

Greetings to the Synod of the Armenian Catholic Church

Dear brothers and sisters, with fraternal affection I now wish to greet His Beatitude Nerses Bedros XIX Tarmouni, Patriarch of Cilicia of the Armenian Catholics, and the Bishops who have come to Rome from the various Continents in order to celebrate the Synod. I wish to express to them my sincere gratitude for their fidelity to the patrimony of their venerable Christian tradition and to the Successor of the Apostle Peter, a fidelity that has always sustained them in the innumerable trials of history.

I accompany your Synod with my fervent prayers and with an Apostolic Blessing, in the hope that it may increasingly favor communion and understating among pastors, that they may know how to guide, with renewed evangelical fervor, Armenian Catholics along the path of generous and joyful witness to Christ and to the Church. As I entrust the Armenian Synod to the maternal intercession of the most holy Mother of God, my prayerful thoughts also go to the regions of the Middle East, and I encourage pastors and all the faithful to persevere with hope amidst the great suffering which afflicts those dear peoples.  May the Lord bless you all. Thank you.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]