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Silent listening

By Fr Donald Chambers

We live in an anti-silent culture. From birth, we are socialised to resist silence, and this resistance is now fertilised by the rapid advancement into a digital milieu in which information comes like a landslide…an immediate reaction. Noise pollution perpetuates in every social space including the worship space, and our waking hours are flooded with non-stop activities.

Relying on insights on silent listening from Joan Chittister (Radical Spirit) and Matthew Kelly (Rediscovering the Saints), I offer Joseph as a suitable model in response to our anti-silent culture.

Chittister writes that silence has two dimensions. The first dimension is internal. It is a “deep down awareness of what we’re thinking and why”. On one hand, we become sensitive and aware of our fears and what we’re resisting, and, on the other hand, we hear the call to rise to our true or authentic self.

“Silence frees us from our public selves and steeps us in our spiritual selves so that we have more to give to the rest of the world in the future.”

Chittister warns us that silence is not “…to avoid the world, its problems, and our responsibility to them…dissociate from the people around us and tell ourselves that we have done a holy thing. But if we do, we are…making ourselves our own god, whom we go inside ourselves to worship.”

The internal dimension of silence is an awareness of what’s happening underneath the masks of titles, social status, or pretence.

The second dimension of silence is external, that is, an awareness of what’s happening around us. The goal of silence is to help us see that the world around us is a graceful and peaceful place, and we arrive at this by listening to others rather than ostracise or ignore them.

For example, when our conversations deteriorate into a vicious argument, no-one gets heard and nothing is resolved. Silence allows us to ask, what is it in me that has brought this conversation to this low point? In silence, I become aware of how I can extinguish the fire.

In summary, Chittister notes that silence is good when it teaches me to become the best of myself, when I am listening to the other intently, when I discipline my tongue, and when I retreat to the monk’s cell to hear the voice of God within me.


The dream world

Matthew Kelly re-enforces, in writing, Chittister’s insights on silence: “Emotional Intelligence is . . . an awareness of what is happening within us and around us, it is ultimately an awareness of what is happening within the people around us. It is also an awareness of how what we do and say affect other people.”

Kelly uses the spiritual journey of St Ignatius of Loyola to point out that Ignatius became aware of his emotional self while recovering from battle injuries and discovered that God speaks to us through our emotions.

What Ignatius experienced on his bed of recovery is what Chittister writes, “Silence frees us to learn, to become, to reflect, to respond, and to repent. It is the degree of humility that opens us to the entire world.”

We now apply these insights to Joseph’s spiritual journey of discernment. The Gospel of Matthew relates that God communicated with Joseph through a series of dreams. Dreams are doors leading to the unconscious–things about ourselves/the world of which we are unaware.

Dreams use a symbolic language, and, like any language, we need to learn its meaning to understand the dream in the way Daniel and Joseph the Patriarch did. Interpretation of dreams, therefore, unveils insights about ourselves and God.

Modern scientific research tells us that dreams occur during the final stage of the sleep cycle when our bodies are in a complete state of rest. In a word, dreaming happens when the body is in silent rest.

In this silent state of rest, Joseph received God’s message for him and his family, and he became aware of its implications for his family.

Chittister is on par when she writes, “silence grows me…It saves me from arrogance and disdain for others by being in the place where I go to discover myself. It enables me to become the ear of God on earth, listening for pain and healing it, listening for my own smallness, and rising above it…”

I believed that Joseph’s silent listening was internal and external. Despite his experience of broken expectations and disappointment, he listened to the divine voice within and listened to the turbulent circumstances surrounding Mary. Silent listening enabled Joseph to act decisively to save Mary and the Saviour of humanity.

In part two of this article, I will reflect on the question, “How can we nurture silent listening in our lives?”.


Fr Donald Chambers of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Jamaica is the General Secretary of the Antilles Episcopal Conference.