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Silence and synodality

By Fr Donald Chambers

There is a time to keep silent and a time to speak”

(Ecclesiastes 3:7).

Silence is an essential element in the Church’s synodal journey; for this reason, it is integral to the conversation in the Spirit. At the ecumenical prayer vigil, in preparation for the opening of the Synodal Assembly 2023, Pope Francis reinforced the essentiality of silence in these words, “In a world full of noise, we are no longer accustomed to silence; indeed, sometimes we struggle with it because silence forces us to face God and ourselves.”

Let us explore the spiritual significance of silence as it relates to the synodal journey.

Imagine at the end of a hectic and stressful day, you experience incoherent thoughts, feel irritable and agitated, cannot relate healthily with others, and cannot appreciate the magnificence of a sunset because you are restlessly exhausted.

This inner restlessness is referred to as noise. You need a pause in the chain of activities to calm your restlessness. That pause is the key to inner silence or rest – silent pause.

The field of graphic design uses a concept called ‘white space’ or in-between space. It is “any blank or empty space surrounding all the other elements in a design composition. It is the space between the text, images, buttons, and other objects that a user can see on the paper or screen.”

Author Estelle Frankel relates this concept to her work as a writer. She writes, “When I tune in to the white spaces of my mind, previously unconnected thoughts, feelings, images, sensations, and memories begin to creatively combine. Unexpected insights come to me in these states when my mind is empty, and my attention is diffuse.”

This white space captures the meaning of the silent pause.

The liturgical-style creation story of Genesis 1:1–2:2 depicts Yahweh’s active work of creation sandwiched by two moments of silent pause.

In the beginning, the writer used two words, “formless” and “void”, to describe the moment before creation. According to biblical scholars, the Hebrew word for ‘formless’ means without shape or form. Metaphorically, it means groundless or unreal. The word ‘void’ relates to deep or endless.

These two words characteristically describe the silent pause that is like an empty vessel preparing to receive something. At the end of the creation story, God rests or pauses, which is interpreted as an invitation to humans to model God’s pause in their observance of the Sabbath rest.

Frankel writes that Jewish mysticism is aware of the role of white space in our spiritual lives, referred to as the ‘white fire’ of the Torah. In contrast to the ‘black fire’ of the Torah, which consists of written words, stories, and commandments, the white fire is wordless and silent.

For the mystics, “. . . God is mute and can only communicate in silence. Our job is to lend our ears, heart, and mind to listen to the divine silence and to translate it into the ideas and wise practices we can utilise.”

For Pope Francis, this white space is the “silence in the manger and on the cross, on the night of the Nativity and on the night of His Passion.” God is silent pause. God integrates silent pauses in God’s works. God invites humans to integrate silent pause to become aware of God’s revelation.

These insights from the biblical and mystical tradition provide a theological and spiritual pillar for the silent pauses that we are invited to intentionally integrate into the conversation in the Spirit on the synodal journey.

Along the synodal journey, there is time to speak and time for silent pauses. Without the silent pauses, the synodal process becomes like an eternal roller coaster, resulting in participants feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, exhausted, dizzy, and unable to discern the mute presence of God in the Holy Spirit.

In His ministry, Jesus models it for us. He invited His close associates, Peter, James, and John, to Mount Horeb, where He was transfigured, and again to the Garden of Gethsemane amid the storm of His imminent arrest. These silent pauses prepared Jesus to listen to the Father’s voice.

In the words of the desert father HG Bishop Angaelos, “Sometimes silent is not indicative of a lack of things to say, but a wise withdrawal until God provides the right opportunity for response.”

Silent pauses make us aware of the noise of our ego, emotions and thoughts, and the tensions of relationships. We pause to journey deep into the well of our being because in the silence of our being is where God dwells.

In the narrative of the Emmaus disciples (Lk 24:13–35), Jesus schools the disciples to embrace the silent pause and journey deep into themselves. Initially, the schooling feels awkward and clumsy, but with practice, it becomes natural. In this schooling, we learn the rhythm of the synodal journey, consisting of a time to speak and a time to be silent.



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