In many ways, the pace of the Western world is fast and unrelenting. People seem to always be on the go. They’re busy, in a hurry, multi-tasking, and in a regular state of real or perceived competition with others or themselves. The world appears to be spinning and it’s easy to get dizzy.
Is this how humanity is called to live? Is there a balance to this frenzy?
In his recent visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps in Poland, Pope Francis gave witness to a different way. Of all the things that could and should be said in such a hell on earth, the pontiff chose the counter-cultural response of silence.
He didn’t speak while at the camps. There were no sound bites, no verbal condemnations, no voiced exhortations, no spoken lessons at the camps. The pope was silent.
It made many people uncomfortable for several different reasons, but the pope was present without words.
In many ways, he lived what the German-born Pope Benedict XVI taught during his own visit to the concentration camps in 2006. While there, the pope emeritus said: “In a place like this, words fail; in the end, there can only be a silence which is itself a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent?”
While expressed differently, both popes turned to silence. Both pontiffs praised the interior workings within a silent heart.
Pope Francis later spoke of his experience: “The great silence of the visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau was more eloquent than any word spoken could have been. In that silence I listened: I felt the presence of all the souls who passed through that place; I felt the compassion, the mercy of God, which a few holy souls were able to bring even into that abyss.”
Silence has a power. It’s a strong option to help balance the rapid pace and distraction of the contemporary Western world.
The French philosopher Blaise Pascal once wrote: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” While perhaps a hyperbole, the philosopher is emphasizing both the importance of solitude and silence, as well as the possible consequences having neither. Eventually, a fast pace and its competitive spirit leads to a lessening of fraternity and to a rise in tension and arguments and even to war.
Silence is an option. But why? What value does silence have to the person who is caught in the thick of things?
Silence helps a person to recollect, to come back to herself and her spiritual heart, and to connect, nurture, and enrich the transcendental aspects of life. In silence, a person is “stuck with herself” and has to wrestle with her problems.
There are no excuses, no rationalizations, no distractions. The person can’t blame anyone else for her problems, and she can’t delay addressing issues because of more pressing responsibilities. The person has to deal with who she is and with the things that are within her.
In silence, therefore, healing can happen, and faith is legitimized, hope and joy are enlivened, love is called to go deeper, and the different fragments of a person’s life can begin to come together.
Pope Francis highlighted some of these lessons of silence. Drawing from his quote above, the pontiff said that in silence he was able to listen, feel the presence of others, and feel the compassion of God.
Later, he would recount that silence gave him the power to remember and to see memory as both a warning and a responsibility. And in the same speech during his visit to the camps, Pope Benedict XVI also recalled: “The past is never simply the past. It always has something to say to us: it tells us the paths to take and the paths not to take.”
Silence provides the forum for the human spirit to discern, to hear the lessons of the past, and to grow in what it means to be human.
Admittedly, silence can be used as a weapon because it’s so powerful, but from the hell of Auschwitz-Birkenau, two popes point to silence and encourage its use as a source for an enriched and tranquil life.
In silence, therefore, the busy person can also become the recollected person. And the person of recollection is a person who can listen to the past, to themselves, and to others without undue stress and hurtful competition.
Ultimately, it is the person of silence and recollection who is the person of peace, and such people of peace can be the true instruments to deepen fraternity within the human family.