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Posted September 29, 2004

The Awesomeness of Silence:
Another Look At This Powerful Virtue

Taken from The Promise of Virtue

Romano Guardini tells us that knowing when to keep quiet and understanding its timing are essential to its virtue.

“A life properly lived includes practice in silence. This begins by keeping our mouth shut whenever this is required by the confidence of another person, the duties of our vocation, tact, or respect for others. It goes on to include keeping silence at a time even when it might be permissible to speak, especially if speaking would create an impression . . . . How many superfluous things we say in the course of a day, how many foolish things! We must learn that silence is beautiful, that it is not emptiness but true and full life.”

A New York Times article I read recently on coping with chronically depressed people gives us an excellent example of the principle of knowing when to remain quiet. The author of the article devoted much of it to what not to do; don’t tell people, “Snap out of it,” “You’ll be fine,” “There, there, it’s not that bad,” “Just try a little harder,” or, “Sure, I understand — I experienced the same problems myself.” She also counseled spouses to stay away from advice like: “What you really need is regular exercise.”

The article then concluded with this last word of advice, “Sometimes the best response is ‘the wisdom of silence.’” Sometimes we need to silence our compulsion to talk and just be present to others.

Guardini’s observation about the timing of silence contains one other precious observation about silence: its ability to create life at moments when we seem dead.

As a young priest, I experienced a situation that perfectly illustrates Guardini’s point. A call came to the rectory around midnight that one of our parishioner’s children was dying. When I arrived at the home, police cars and an ambulance were parked in the driveway. Upon entering, I saw a baby in a crib in one part of the room. It looked more like an artificial doll than a human. Then I realized that it was dead.

Commotion was everywhere. There were policemen, doctors, paramedics, and neighbors hurrying here and there. Over in one corner of the room the poor mother of the child sat alone and cried. She sobbed so hard that no one seemed to want to go near her.

Suddenly a woman friend entered the room. Not saying a word, she went over to the mother, looked into her eyes, embraced her, and then continued to gently hold her. Her calming, comforting effect on that mother was so touching that it brought tears to my eyes. You could see she felt the mother’s pain was so deeply that the spoken word was out of place. By gently holding the mother in her arms she let that mother’s pain surface and enter into her. Silence was the sacred bridge allowing this to happen.

Here silence would quietly say, “To alleviate the pain of another and help them find life again, we must become still, let our interior sight look into the other person so that we can be one with them. It is only by doing this that we truly can help them shoulder their sorrow. This is what is meant by the word sympathy in its purest sense. This is how you can bring life to a person who feels dead.”