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The Paradox of Silence

ON THE SUPERFLUITY OF WORDS

By David Vincent Meconi | March 2024
David Vincent Meconi, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is the author of dozens of books on Church history and Catholic spirituality, as well as nearly 100 scholarly essays. He is currently traveling and teaching in the field of behavior management.

When the Word speaks, His words reach our ears. When the Word is silent, He speaks to our hearts. From the beginning to the culmination of His earthly life, this Word comes to us quietly, beneath the world’s tumult and confusion. At His advent, the Word approaches “while all things were in quiet silence, and that night was in the midst of her swift course.” It was then that “Thine Almighty word leaped down from heaven out of thy royal throne, as a fierce man of war into the midst of a land of destruction” (Wisd. 18:14-15). Toward the end of His human life, the Word again chooses silence to confront both the fallen piety and the unjust politics of the world He came to redeem: “When Jesus was accused by the chief priests and elders, he made no answer. Then Pilate said to him, ‘Do you not hear how many things they are testifying against you?’ But he did not answer him one word, so that the governor was greatly amazed” (Mt. 27:12-14).

Every Lent, Christians around the world are asked to be with this silent Sacrifice as He is led to His crucifixion: “Though harshly treated, he submitted and did not open his mouth; Like a lamb led to slaughter or a sheep silent before shearers, he did not open his mouth” (Isa. 53:7). In our verbosely saturated culture, in a society in which it has become incumbent to comment on every banality of the day — from what one had for breakfast to the latest TikTok trend — we have unwittingly rejected the power of silence.

Yet Catholic Tradition has considered silence both a commitment to and a powerful sign of God’s holiness. In fact, St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. 107) saw in silence a way of describing the Trinitarian relations themselves, understanding “the one sole God, who has revealed himself in his Son Jesus Christ, Word of his own silence proceeding, who in all that he was and did gladdened the heart of the One who sent him” (Epistle to the Magnesians). The divine Persons of the Trinity are so united in love that simple silence conveys their intimacy perfectly, confirming their absolute unity. In the perfect community of charity, words prove superfluous.

This was the same divine silence Ignatius asked his disciples to practice as the imperial soldiers led him from his cathedral in Syria to the Colosseum in Rome. Instead of encouraging his flock to protest, the humble bishop advised: “For by staying silent and letting me alone, you can turn me into an intelligible utterance of God; but if your affections are only concerned with my poor human life, then I become a mere meaningless cry once more” (Epistle to the Romans). Ignatius thus contrasts two types of speech that are instructive for us today.

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