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Silence and the Catacombs of the Human Heart

“Silence is the cross on which we must crucify our ego.” -St. Seraphim of Sarov

When is the last time you sat in complete silence? I’m not talking about low music “silence” but pure unfiltered silence. If you’re like me then it’s been a little while. It’s not something we naturally gravitate towards if we’re honest with ourselves. Why is this? Why do we dislike silence so much?

In 2016 I was struggling in my faith and was leaving the tradition I had been in for 15 years. Everything I said in my prayer life felt like some cliche phrase I picked up that felt insincere and loaded with bad theology. I had completely come to the end of my words about God and the church because none of it felt honest anymore. It was important for me to pray even though I had nothing to say and that’s when I found it. I started reading a book on church history and found a tradition called the Quakers. They are a peculiar group in that they don’t have a preacher, music or any images like most Christian traditions. Though Quakers don’t have the typical flow of liturgy they do preserve one thing: the sacrament of silence. 

Quakers are without a doubt our quietest tradition in the church. This is not to say that no other traditions practice silence but, Quakers are the only ones to make it the centerpiece of connecting to God. I found comfort in this tradition of stillness and silence. I didn’t have to say anything to pray to the God I was so desperate to speak to. It was in these times that I found out as one friend put it that “silence is the voice of God”. Taking the time to sit and listen and no longer create a discourse using words with God was what healed my broken heart. 

Before discovering the gift of silence as I said earlier I was of little faith. Deep down I was holding onto a lot of pain. In the two years prior I was let go as a staff member at a local church, my parents divorced and I was dealing with the stress of planning a wedding. I had done the necessary steps of pain management by finding a new church, doing my best to help my parents get back together and of course I got married but, I didn’t find a cure yet for my tired heart. 

Our early Christian brothers and sisters would enter the catacombs for secret worship and memorial services. These catacombs were the burial place of the dead in ancient Rome. If you were of the nobility you could be buried within the city however the lower class had to be buried outside of it. As a result of these practices we have a rich insight into Roman life and early Christian tradition. Deep inside of these rings tunneled around outside of the city center lies the tradition of silence. Christians would enter these catacombs in silent worship as they remembered their dead. I imagine dim candle lit chambers with iconography of the story of Lazarus being written on the walls as a silent family member prayed for life everlasting. 

In my experience much like these early Christians, when I light my candles and reflect on the story of Lazarus’ being raised from the dead I find myself in the catacombs. My heart beats low and loud reminding me of the life I’ve found in Christ. It’s where I find resurrection in the pieces of bad heart that lead me to death. It’s where I am healed and restored to wholeness. 

Silence is the gateway into the catacombs of the human heart.

I’m fairly certain that the reason we avoid silence is because entering into the inner chambers of the heart is dangerous work. As we come face to face with those things that are buried deep inside we have to learn to let things go. We can no longer hold onto our anger and jealousy or our grudges when we listen for the spirit of God. Our egos slowly slip away as we become crucified with Christ. It’s holy work to engage in the silence and my hope is that much like the early Christians looking to the icons of Lazarus the spirit calls us to awaken to a resurrected and grace filled life of gratitude and peace.

May Christ always be on our minds and on our lips and may we all embrace the gist of a new heart. Amen.

Charles PorterComment