We live in a world that is increasingly noisy. Here in New York, it seems that there is a constant cacophony of sound surrounding us. As frustrating as that can be, it is especially challenging to hear the still, small voice of God in our society and culture. We must remember that God does not raise His voice at us, but rather acts in subtle ways that can be easily missed. The great Carmelite mystic, St. John of the Cross, once remarked, “God’s first language is silence.” How easy it can be for us to not be attentive to that silence, which speaks to our hearts in ways that are imperceptible to the senses.
In the Christmas season, we see how the silence of God manifested itself in the birth of Jesus. That night in Bethlehem God entered our world in the most remarkable and unexpected of ways, and yet that went almost completely unnoticed. It is only the shepherds, who informed by the angels, went to see that incredible event. We may wonder: Why does God act this way? Why does Christ not speak to us in ways that are more dramatic and easily perceived? The fact is that if we heard God speak to us audibly or in some great physical manifestation, it would be overwhelming and we would be forced to respond. God has no interest in forcing us to do anything. He respects our freedom far too much to coerce us to follow Him. Rather, God wants our cooperation. Through prayer, the sacraments and time spent with Him, we have the opportunity to attune the ear of heart to the voice of God and respond accordingly.
We have to learn to be good ponderers, people who spend time with the Lord. The great example of what this looks like is Mary. Although she received her call to be the Mother of God in the great sign of the Archangel Gabriel appearing to her, we hear so often in the Gospel of Luke that “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.” As the shepherds head back to their flocks on Christmas morning, it is easy to imagine St. Joseph closing his eyes to rest and Jesus sleeping in Mary’s arms while she quietly prays and ponders all the extraordinary things that have happened in the last nine months. Forty days later, she will ponder in the Temple when Simeon says that her heart a sword shall pierce. When the Lord leaves his home in Nazareth as an adult, Mary must have pondered what her Son’s mission would entail. Three years later on a Friday afternoon, as the sun was darkened, she would again hold her Son in her arms pondering what all this must mean and how all this would end. Surely, she pondered three days later when her Son, risen and glorified, appeared to her. As Mary spent her life in this contemplative posture, we can learn from the example she sets.
For any disciple, time spent with the Lord in the cave of the heart is essential, but even more so for someone who is discerning a call to the priesthood or religious life. When I meet a prospective seminarian for the first time, one of my first questions is, “When you pray about this, what do you hear Jesus telling you?” I assume that anyone who is thinking about a vocation has brought this to prayer. If not, the man needs to go home, spend time with the Lord for the next few months and then get back to me. There must be a relationship he has with Jesus that allows him to come to the realization that he may be called to serve the Lord as a priest. We must strive to tune out the disturbances of our loud and deafening culture. In the noise of the world and the distractions that surround us, we must seek the One who dwells in silence and calls out to the ear of our heart.
Father Argano is director of vocations for the archdiocese.