A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Words and God’s Word

By Fr Tom
Ryan SM

When We are Lost for Words - Part 10 of 10

Some years ago, I came across an interview with an Englishman who was amongst the advance group of the allied forces in Europe at the end of the second world war. 

The former officer spoke of one particular incident. The small group arrived at the perimeter of one of the concentration camps. There wasn’t a soul there. But they noticed something strange, if not eerie. Within the boundaries of the camp, there were no signs of nature—no birds chirping or singing or flying. Not a flutter from a butterfly. 

Just… silence. 

It was as if nature was dumbstruck, totally at a loss for words, defenceless in the presence of an unspeakable horror—human evil as its most depraved and destructive. 

There are other times in our lives when words fail us: we don’t know what to say.

A neighbour next door dies suddenly; a diagnosis of a terminal condition of a dear colleague or friend.

Or times when we hit a wall; about faith, God, perhaps, life itself.

How is God’s word at work in crises, or in the everyday, when we can’t hear it? 

Or when God seems to be silent?

At times, with Mary, we can only stand at the foot of the cross.

Or CS Lewis: He wrote a book trying to make some sense from his faith about suffering in the world (The Problem of Pain, 1940). Twenty years later, it all seemed to crumble with his loss and grief at the death of his wife Joy (A Grief Observed, 1961). 

In the first book, Lewis approached suffering and pain through faith but by using logic and abstract ideas. Later, he realised that sort of approach can finish up in pieces when confronted by suffering as a very personal reality. 

Lewis rediscovered his faith through his own suffering. He turned to God and found the door slammed in his face “and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence” (A Grief Observed, 6-7). This impelled him to a personal theology done at “the foot of the Cross”.

More generally, finding God in both light and darkness is part of the spiritual quest. Think of Moses who spoke with God ‘face to face’. 

Elsewhere, Moses has to shelter inside the “cleft of the rock” because no one could “see the face of God and live”. God’s hand shielded him as the divine presence passed by (Ex. 33). 

Again, for Elijah, God was not in the mighty wind, or earthquake or the fire; rather, in the sound of a gentle breeze, of a soft silence (1 Kg. 19: 9-14). 

We are reminded then to: “Be silent about great things. Let them grow inside you. Never discuss them. Discussion is so limiting and distracting. It makes things grow smaller. You think you swallow things when they ought to swallow you. Before all greatness be silent: in art, in music, in religion. Be silent.”

Friedrich Von Hügel from Letters to a Niece.

That means attentive listening—a mark of someone who is faithful whether we are speaking of God or a disciple. 

Deafness denotes hardness of heart and unfaithfulness. Just as being profoundly deaf isolates a person, so it is in our relationship with God and with life itself. 

Genevieve Lacey captures what it means to listen and to hear, for a musician and artist and, more generally, in everyday life:

“Listening is an activity that connects us deeply with others. It can change how we perceive the world, and then, how we decide to live in it. To listen suggests an open, receptive stance, without necessarily knowing what will arrive. It suggests alertness, willingness. Listening is essentially an act of respect and generosity…” 1 

We end this series on ‘words’ by considering God’s word in prayer with Basil Hume: 

“Quite often, perhaps even very often, praying words slowly or reflecting on a passage from the Gospel may seem to be frustrating and unrewarding. Do not be surprised or anxious. Such a situation purifies our motive for praying, which is primarily to please God, not to comfort ourselves. Our perseverance is a proof of our love. There is a gentle breeze if we can but catch it, which blows all the time to help us on our journey through life to our final destination. That breeze is the Holy Spirit. But the wind cannot be caught or used unless the sail is hoisted, and the hoisting is our task. We must be on the watch, ready to recognise it and play our part. God does hold us, and will lead us, if we want it; but we must want it.”

Cardinal Basil Hume, The Mystery of Love (DLT, 2004). 

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