It’s impossible to hold a real conversation when it’s peppered with mean, toxic words. The more our attempted conversation becomes thwarted by invective, the more we lose the ability to hear and speak at all. A silence creeps forth, not the sweet silence of life and growth, but the terrible silence of contempt, disdain and denial.
This kind of experience has become so prevalent among us that we’re in danger of losing sight of what’s happening. When we’re screaming at each other or holding one another in contempt, how can we find each other?
As we get pushed out of real encounters, as conversation gets more difficult and we lose the desire even to sit with each other — there comes a time for a different silence. We might not go looking for it, but it will come looking for us.
A newly canonized saint shows us a place of silence in these confused days. He went there for different reasons, not looking for silence but looking for people. He wanted to make a difference. And he did, though in his own lifetime it did not seem so.
Long before his canonization, St. Charles de Foucauld came unexpectedly into my life. I had been offered to lead a certain ministry, one that would require me to change many aspects of my life and leave people I loved. I knew in my heart I needed to say yes. But I didn’t want to.
A beloved spiritual guide helped me reflect, a person of deep faith whose words were backed up by his way of life. As St. Paul VI observed, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (“Evangelii Nuntiandi,” No. 41).
So when this person spoke, it was hard to justify not listening — although his words were leading me where I was frightened to go. Indeed, he said plainly: “Your problem is not that you don’t know what to do; it’s that you’re afraid of suffering.” Fear of suffering is nothing to be ashamed of; the danger is to be unaware of our fear and become enslaved by it.
The particular suffering I feared was being alone. Not physically alone, but alone in my faith, alone with Jesus to face human problems, wondering whether He’s real. Faith can be difficult even in a crowd of the faithful, each carrying their little candle lit from the big paschal candle. What about with no witnesses around to hold the flame with you, while the flame itself (wavering though it may be) exposes you in the night?
My guide picked up on my fear with far greater understanding than I had. He didn’t respond with soothing words — “That’s OK, we’re all afraid” — helping me stay stuck. Nor with contempt — “How can you be so cowardly?” — driving me underground. Nor with the (oh so much easier) conclusion that since I was afraid, I’d better say no. He simply said: “Charles de Foucauld died alone in the desert.”
Being alone in the desert might sound like a punishment, but there are times when it is the place we need to go. It might become a divine gift, a place of silence, encounter and strengthening.
Pope Paul VI, in his day, named how difficult it was becoming for people to hear the Gospel. His words showed a way for the Church to help people hear the word of truth they needed. In our day, even a true witness speaking true words is hard to hear. The silence reigning around us is a silence of hostility. Truth itself has been found wanting and sent to the recycle bin or labeled as toxic waste.
Pushed by hurtful conversation and angry silence into a desert of solitude, might we receive as a gift another kind of silence? Charles de Foucauld didn’t set out to die alone in the desert, but his radical love and faithfulness led him there. He did not refuse. By his unconditional love, he allowed such a solitude, even unto death, to be transformed.
When I did take up that new ministry, a fellow worker turned out to be someone inspired by de Foucauld. At the end of each working day, in the silence of a small chapel, the two of us would recite together de Foucauld’s Prayer of Abandonment. “Do with me what you will. Whatever you may do, I thank you: I am ready for all, I accept all.”
Marrocco is a columnist for Catholic News Service.