Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding…” (Job 38:1-4)
This dramatic Scripture passage recounts the beginning of God’s rebuttal to Job’s complaint at feeling abandoned by God in spite of his righteous life. God’s stinging rebuttal continues from here as he asks Job where he was in all the glorious acts of creation. In the end Job is properly humble and contrite as we can see by his response: “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer, twice, but will proceed no further.” Job’s reply is silence, and his silence is more eloquent than all he has said before.
As Scripture tells us and Job recognized, there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” (Ecclesiastes 3:7)
Silence in Scripture often denotes reverence, awe, and a waiting that speaks louder than a trumpet blast. “When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.” (Revelation 8:1)
St. Thomas Aquinas, probably the most prolific theologian that ever lived, was himself struck silent in the presence of God near the end of his life. According to the Thurston and Attwater revision of Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints, he had a life-changing vision:
“On the feast of St. Nicholas [in 1273, Aquinas] was celebrating Mass when he received a revelation that so affected him that he wrote and dictated no more, leaving his great work the Summa Theologiae unfinished. To Brother Reginald’s (his secretary and friend) expostulations he replied, ‘The end of my labors has come. All that I have written appears to be as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me.’ When later asked by Reginald to return to writing, Aquinas said, ‘I can write no more. I have seen things that make my writings like straw.’”
Like Job, faced with the awesome power and majesty of God, he was reduced to silence.
And of course Jesus himself was silent before his accusers. One can only speculate on why he was silent at this critical moment, but I believe the best explanation is that it served God’s purpose. Certainly Jesus was capable of mounting a plausible defense on his own behalf. But he knew that God’s purpose and timing were aimed at our ultimate good—the salvation of the human race. And so he remained silent and was tortured and put to death “as a ransom for many”.
In an online discussion on silence, someone sent me a quote from St. Catherine of Siena that she had received that day: “We’ve had enough exhortations to be silent! Cry out with a hundred thousand tongues. I see that the world is rotten because of silence”. She wondered, with all the injustice in the world, how we can remain silent.
I replied that certainly the silence that allows sin to fester is the wrong kind and not the kind our Lord was referring to here. This is in one way referring to the silence that is an antidote to rash and flippant speech. There is too much “chatter” in the world. We need more contemplation. Less impulsiveness and more deliberation. Thinking twice before speaking instead of speaking twice before thinking.
There are issues that require that we speak out. But we are called to measure our words carefully, and say only what will make a real difference, not just what will make us feel good. Chewing somebody out who does not agree with us usually pushes them farther down the wrong path. A measured response invites discussion based on reason. There is too much emotion in speech these days and not enough reason. Sincerity, honesty, and kindness are the marks of the Spirit.
There is a time to be silent, as Our Lord was before his accusers. When our words will fall on deaf ears, what is the point? If hearts are closed, our prayers and penances will accomplish far more than our words. And sometimes God requests our silence, even when every fiber of our being wants to shout.
It is good to remember that there are whole communities founded on silence—the contemplatives—without whom the world would have spun out of orbit long ago!
But there is, I believe, a more compelling reason than merely cutting the chatter. The Catechism tells us that the Church must follow Christ into his death and resurrection. I do not think it is a stretch to say the Church has in our time entered into the Passion of Christ. Many recent Christian martyrs have testified to that with their lives. This exhortation to silence, to the weighing and measuring of our words, I believe, shows us that at this point in our Passion narrative, the Church is on trial before the world, and that we need to discern carefully when it is time to speak and when it is time to keep silence.
Prayer and discernment. We are living in perilous times. Prudence demands that we discern the divine will and live it to the best of our ability. God is on the march! Watch and pray!
May the Holy Spirit be in our hearts and on our tongues! May we hold every thought captive to Christ. May we pray with the Psalmist: “Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.” (Psalm 141:3)