The Wordless Journey: Synodality and Silence by Michael Centore

Silence as the heart or homeland of Christian identity is something that has been touched upon throughout the Synod on Synodality but rarely explored at length. The “spiritual conversation” model used by Synod participants incorporates silence in the listening process, though without adequate foundation it risks becoming just one more step in a never-ending stream of interventions—a hiatus in the noise rather than the wellspring or ground of prayer from which the Word can emerge.

This is as true for the participants as it is for those of us who, we hope, will be moved to continue the work of the Synod in this intervening year before the second assembly in October 2024. It is no secret that the synthesis report left much to be desired and seemed, to many, like a failure of nerve. If we want this to change, and to expand the scope of the church’s theological imagination, we need to continue to gather and to make space for that fructifying silence that can induce us to new understandings, insights, habits, and initiatives.

“There is more silence in a single person than can be used in a single human life,” Max Picard writes in his book-length meditation The World of Silence. Anticipating the spiritual conversation method by some 70 years, he links effective listening to silence:

Listening is only possible when there is silence in man [sic]: listening and silence belong together. Instead of truly speaking to others today we are all waiting merely to unload on others the words that we have collected inside us. Speech has become a purely animal, excretive function.

Picard here hints at the difference between reacting and responding. Though his image of speech in the final sentence may strike some ears as a bit vulgar, really, is there any other way to characterize this era of 24-hour news—perhaps better understood as 1,440-minute news in the way the day fragments into a bombardment of instantaneous updates—where one thing is constantly being displaced by the next and there is no chance to weep, mourn, pray, lament? In an interview to promote his new book The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War, author Jeff Sharlet said that it is this very failure to mourn, this backup of unaddressed grief over the climate crisis and the losses of the Covid-19 pandemic, that mutates into the ambient rage we see in Christian nationalist circles. And Fr. Timothy Radcliffe has spoken in the wake of the Synod of the opportunity for a new kind of journalism—“a new language, a new way of talking”—that amounts to a “patient dialogue with the media” instead of a frenzied rush from information to interpretation.

Sharlet and Radcliff’s comments point to the relationship between silence and time. Whether it is a period of mourning or a “patient dialogue,” passages of silence mark the moments when the focus shifts from reaction to reception, and reception to response. “It is better to be silent and exist than to speak and not exist,” Ignatius wrote to the Ephesians (15:1), underscoring the ontological primacy of silence. When we enter into silence, we regenerate ourselves with the original language of creation, with the voice of the grass as it grows or the stone that with patient pliancy is filed down by time. We hear much today about “care for creation,” and rightly so—but what better way to acclimatize ourselves to this culture of care than to learn creation’s language, its syntax of stillness and silence? The Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad offers us an inaugural lesson:

What is silence, what is it, my trusted friend?
What is silence but unspoken words?
I am bereft of words, but the sparrows’ language
is nature’s unyielding euphoric flow.

(“Let Us Believe in the Dawn of the Cold Season”)

On the level of synodal conversation, we can begin by being attentive to the phenomenology of silence as it is expressed in our listening sessions. We need to “taste” silence, to be aware of its textures and tinctures as we hold it within ourselves and between each other. We also need to develop a feeling for the fecundity of silence that like rich earth nourishes the seeds of our exchange. “Your ‘heart,’ the core of your being, becomes a womb that in silence and darkness receives God’s word,” Fr. George Maloney writes—an image of the lifegiving properties of silence that Carol Harrison, referencing Robert Jütte in her book The Art of Listening in the Early Church, connects to the physical act of audition when she notes that “Our Lady herself is sometimes depicted as conceiving the Word of God through her ears: the altar of the Passion at the former Cistercian convent church in Marienthal zu Netze shows the child Jesus and the Holy Spirit, in the shape of a dove, emerging from God’s mouth on a sheaf of rays that glides towards Mary’s ear.”

“An attentive ear is the sage’s dream,” the author of the book of Sirach tells us (3:29). And then: “If you love listening you will learn; if you lend an ear, wisdom will be yours” (6:33). Once attuned to silence, we will begin to see it as its own end: not as an experience to be instrumentalized, but a spiritual reward in itself. For Saint Seraphim of Sarov, silence is “the cross on which we must crucify our ego”; sharing silence collectively, we embark on this prayer of self-offering together, and the dreams of one are naturally transfused into the dreams of many. This is precisely that kind of prayer that Gustavo Gutiérrez defines as “an experience of a gratuitousness that creates new forms of communication,” or that Thomas Merton, writing to Dorothy Day just prior to departing for his final journey to Asia, expressed as follows:

I shall continue to feel bound to all of you in silence and prayer. Our real journey is life is interior: it is a matter of growth, of deepening, of an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts. Never was it more necessary for us to respond to that action.

For all of its ambiguities and institutional shortfalls, the Synod has given us a moment of shared recollection and a medium to continue meeting independently, perhaps on the fringes, to practice the work of a communitarian spirituality. The inclusion of silence in the synodal method is not a space between words, but their very center—their fulcrum point or, to draw on Fr. Maloney and Carol Harrison’s images of fertility, their germinal seed. As the “one bread, one body” we partake of during the Eucharist is the same in all parts of the world and in every era of history since Christ’s institution, so does silence as the lingua franca of prayer bind us across space and time. When we enter it together, it acquires an ecclesial character in that it returns us to the origin and source of the church that is Christ’s sigh of mercy on the cross. In this moment he gave everything over to “walk with” humanity through death to life, a wordless journey the memory of which forms the basis of our faith as silence frames the shape of synodality. ♦

Michael Centore is the editor of Today’s American Catholic.

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3 replies
  1. Debbie Stollery
    Debbie Stollery says:

    Beautiful and brilliant…a necessary contribution to our spiritual and practical growth into synodality. I hope you will write more on some of the ideas in here, and help us develop both an intellectual appreciation and a spiritual practice of silence so that we can truly learn how to hear the voice of the Spirit.

    Advent blessings…in moments of pure silence!

    • Nicole d'Entremont
      Nicole d'Entremont says:

      I recently heard (NPR/I believe) that the “loneliness” quotient in humanity is up globally. Perhaps if we were silent more and thereby listened more attentively, we would be less lonely. A friend recently wrote to me that she felt we are lonelier now becasue we don’t read books that draw us into other lives. I found that provocative because when we enter a book, we are listening and we are silent and we are taking the words in. I love what Michael Centore is presenting in his reflections on silence and spirituality (esp re moving from reaction to reception) and the host of other writers on the subject of silence he brings into the conversation.


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