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A Reflection For Our Times… Silence Is Golden

September 2, 2019 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By DONAL ANTHONY FOLEY

All sorts of reasons have been put forward as to why the Church is struggling to make its message known in the modern world, ranging from inadequate catechesis, to the malign effects of the “spirit of Vatican II,” to the sex-abuse crisis, to widespread indifference, or equally to the increasing hostility on the part of an anti-Christian media.
All of these points, and others, are valid, but there may well also be a deeper reason why this is the case, one which is ultimately to do with the nature of modern society and its impact on prayer.
We live in a very noisy age. We have grown up with noise and distraction, are used to it, and somehow feel there is little — short of relocating to a desert island — that we can do to avoid it. But while it is difficult to avoid noise and distraction entirely, we can do a lot to minimize the harmful effects it is having on us, and particularly on our prayer lives.
If we compare the twenty-first century with previous periods in human history, then undoubtedly we are living through the most noisy and distracting period ever. Just think of the everyday noise from traffic, engines of all sorts, trains, planes, and so on that surrounds us. And there is the “music/Muzak” which assaults our ears from morning till night, from radios, from TVs, in stores, everywhere.
If we go back to before the Industrial Revolution, this type of noise would have been largely absent. For centuries before that, people lived largely in an atmosphere of silence, working in the fields, alone, for the most part, with their own thoughts. This made prayer, and thus being aware of God and keeping in touch with Him, much easier.
Radio, movies, and TV, though, began to have a real influence on society in the first half of the twentieth century. Regarding music, modern rock and pop music is something completely different from what has gone before, and particularly classical music. Apart from the lyrics, many of which stress immoral activities, the focus now is on rhythm and beat, and on stimulating the emotions.
Also, people nowadays, and particularly young people, are increasingly isolated from the wider world as they listen to music or watch movies on electronic devices with earphones. The net result of all this, though, is a “hyped-up” generation, which sees little point in prayer or in religion generally.
The great problem with cinema and TV, in comparison with for example reading a book, is that with the former the viewer is largely passive — images and sounds are displayed before them and assimilated by the brain. With reading a book, though, say a novel, we have to do some work, we have to use our imagination to create mental images from the text we are reading. By its very nature, this is a creative effort in comparison with just watching a screen.
It is quite probable that our brains are able to store everything we experience during our life — and just think of the immense number of sights, sounds, emotions, feelings, and so on that we do experience.
The problem now is that people’s minds are overloaded with such stimuli, and that doesn’t leave much space for God to work on us and in us. In fact, sometimes, you almost feel there is a conspiracy to ensure that people in modern society never experience real silence. This is increasingly true even of the Mass, where there is little time for silence or for people just to commune with God.
Suppose, then, in the face of all this noise and distraction, we make a resolution to start the day with a time of meditation and prayer so we can live a more Christ-like life. But suppose too, that the night before we have stayed up late and watched a movie or TV show. What happens the next day when we try to pray?
Quite simply, the situation is that our minds are so full of the previous night’s images that it becomes virtually impossible to concentrate on the prayers or meditations. Thus after a short trial, we probably give up on the idea of genuine prayer or meditation having convinced ourselves that for some reason, “We just can’t meditate.”
Obviously, the answer to this situation is not to stay up late watching that movie, but rather to do something less exciting but more constructive. The time, from a Christian perspective, would be much better spent in doing some quiet spiritual reading. Then not only would we avoid clogging our brains up with frankly useless images and sounds, but we would also have something with which to fuel our meditations the next morning.
And this is true even of morally neutral TV shows — if watching too many of them means that our minds are so full of images that we can’t pray, then something is wrong.
At first, this will seem very irksome, since we can quite easily become addicted to exciting movies, TV, and so on — but after a while, we begin to feel the benefit in a greatly enhanced ability to pray and meditate. And this is quite apart from the fact that reducing our TV viewing and so on releases time for more productive pursuits.
In any event, ultimately, we have to make a choice between God and the attractions of the world.
This, then, is perhaps one of the largely hidden reasons why the Church is languishing at the moment — Catholics have all sorts of good intentions and many good initiatives are put into practice, but if we are ultimately erecting barriers to genuine prayer in our lives through excessive exposure to media and noise in all its forms, then it is hardly surprising if all those efforts are leading to such meager results.
The fact is that the great saints of the twentieth century, such as St. Teresa of Calcutta, St. Maximilian Kolbe, and Pope St. John Paul II, were all formed in the era before the widespread practice of watching TV, and they do not seem to be having very many conspicuous successors in our own times.
Somehow, as a Church, we have to find a way of not just avoiding emotional and informational overload from the various forms of modern media, but also of making a place for silence in our lives.
This retreat from noise can happen if we want it to happen — but we need to be firm about making sure that we insulate ourselves from as much of the harmful electronic distractions which surround us possible. This will mean sacrifices, but the result will be a greater intimacy with God and a much more peaceful and productive life.

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(Donal Anthony Foley is the author of a number of books on Marian Apparitions, and maintains a related website at www.theotokos.org.uk. He has also written two time-travel/adventure books for young people, and the third in the series is due to be published next year — details can be seen at: http://glaston-chronicles.co.uk.)

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