The fruit of silence is prayer.
The fruit of prayer is faith.
The fruit of faith is love.
The fruit of love is service.
The fruit of service is peace.
These are the words that appeared on Blessed Teresa of Calcutta’s “business card” while she still walked the earth, and it deeply shapes the spirituality of the order she founded. Working with the Missionaries of Charity in the Bronx this summer has given me opportunity to reflect on these words. To me the most striking line of the card is the first one. While most Christians who take their faith seriously recognize their need for prayer, faith, love, service, and peace, it is easy to forget the importance of silence.
We live in a world filled with noise: the hum of electronic devices, the incessant sounds of ring tones, music blaring from earphones and radios, the constant chatter of the television. Ours is not a society that places a high premium on silence. Given the constant noise that characterizes our culture, one might expect an order that so values silence to flee from society. Many of the older religious orders did just that, even before the explosion of sound that modern technology has made possible. Whether it’s the Desert Fathers, who staked out their place in the wilderness to wrestle with demons, or orders like the Benedictines, who sought more bucolic settings in which they could live the common life, praying and working for the glory of God, religious orders can sometimes give the impression that the only way to find silence is to retreat to a remote location.
The witness of the Missionaries of Charity suggests otherwise. Following Blessed Teresa’s “vocation within a vocation” to serve God in the poorest of the poor, the sisters establish their houses in the poorest neighborhoods around the world. These areas aren’t exactly the first place one thinks of when one is looking for silence. Queen of Peace Shelter is located in the south Bronx, a crime-ridden neighborhood plagued by drug deals and gang violence. Shootings are not uncommon, and even on “peaceful” days the noise from the street makes attempts to find silence difficult, to put it mildly.
The contrast between the noise of the Bronx and the sisters’ practice of silence is most acute between 2 and 3pm, when the sisters have their daily holy hour. Every day in their simple chapel they kneel before the Blessed Sacrament in silent meditation or praying the rosary in common as noise from the streets – the blaring music of a passing car, the whine of a police siren – wafts into their little sanctuary through the open windows. And yet amidst all the commotion, there they are, day after day, silent in the presence of the Lord.
What Blessed Teresa and her daughters have discovered is something that many of the saints throughout history knew: silence is not primarily the absence of sound, but rather an interior silence marked by an awareness of and attentiveness to the presence of God. St. Catherine of Siena speaks of the “interior cell” in which she would pray even in the midst of daily activities of both the mundane and the extraordinary variety. Catherine de Hueck Doherty, the 20th century Russian noblewoman and foundress of Madonna House, puts it this way: “Deserts, silence, solitudes are not necessarily places but states of mind and heart. These deserts can be found in the midst of the city, and in every day of our lives.” Silence, as the witness of the Missionaries of Charity testifies, can be found even amidst the hustle and bustle of a big city, and it leads to the fulfillment of the two great commandments: love of God and neighbor.
Our Lord tells us, “You will know them by their fruits” (Mt 7:16). One can see the genuine fruits of silence in the depth of the sisters’ prayer life, in the faith with which they reside in dangerous and neglected neighborhoods, in the love that radiates from their countenances and issues forth in their service to the poorest of the poor, and in the peace with which they lead such a radical life. Not everyone is called to such a radical witness to the gospel, but the Missionaries are a testimony to the fruitfulness of silence, as well as a reminder that even in the midst of this noise-filled culture anyone can find moments of silence. If we seek out these moments of silence, God will meet us there and transform our lives, bestowing upon us the peace that the world cannot give.
Image: Giacomo Balla, Rhythm + Noise + Speed of Car