How Loud Is Our Silence?

Most of us are this person, know someone like this, or have been in a situation with someone like this.

An intensive, challenging, vocal, stirring discussion–within the family, at work, in Church, in politics–goes on for a while until there is a lull in the conversation, and one of the people who has said little if anything starts to speak. Quietly, gently, slowly, this person makes an observation or a statement that irreversibly turns the discussion in a different direction or dispels the building or potentially destructive emotions.

Remember the old commercial, “When EF Hutton talks, people listen”? That’s the kind of person we are talking about.

One of the traits of a good leader is the ability to listen. One of the hallmarks of a great leader is one who knows when to keep silent and not speak.

Look around, and I’m sure you will see a number of examples of good and bad, great and worst leaders using this specific criteria. And with one hand you can probably easily count the ones who understand the volume of silence.

One. In 1980 while I was studying in Rome, I was sort of enveloped by the hospitality of the Jesuits. Padre Damiani at the Gesu listened quietly and with a gracious smile to me and my friends as we pattered on in badly-conjugated Italian, and when we stopped, he knew what we needed most–to be welcomed. He showed us the private rooms in the Jesuit residence there with their amazing paintings and told us the history of those who had lived there (at least, I think that’s what he said–our Italian was possibly worse than his English!)

Two. Around the same time, I was spending a lot of time with an Italian youth group at a Jesuit parish. Fr. Pedro Arrupe, then superior general of the Jesuits, was preaching at Mass one Sunday, and meeting with a group of adults there. We met and talked briefly for a minute or two. What I remember most is the quiet stillness that surrounded him, this fairly tiny, but wise man.

Three. Within the first couple hours of arriving in California for work and/or to visit my parents, I get to hear the stories. The stories of the dying, the stories of the families, the stories of the caregivers–all from my Mom who is a hospice chaplain. She knows how to listen without expectation, and with compassion and kindness. And she knows when silence is the best consolation in times of tragedy and grief, when no words are even close to adequate.

That’s three fingers I can count so far.

What about you? How many people can you count–including yourself–who know how to listen and let silence lead the way?

One Tip on Healthy Culture

Blessed SacramentIf there is one lesson to be learned from this political season, it is how silence can breed mistrust and transparency can feed trust.

Catholics have many positive experiences of silence. The pause between an intercession and the words, “We pray to the Lord . . .” Or the grander silences like the incensing of the altar and preparation of the Blessed Sacrament on Holy Thursday.

In our secular experience, we often keep silent and do not talk about those things we share in common–“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”–because we do share them.

However, this political year has shown us the high price for not talking about things.

On Sunday when my children’s choir led the music, one of the 6-year-olds looked up at me during the Eucharistic Prayer and asked me what the “round thing” in the priest’s hand was. I said, “It’s Jesus.” He mumbled, “It looks like a round thing.” I repeated it again, “It’s Jesus.” He looked away and the conversation ended.

But I stood there, looking at my eight 6-year-olds, knowing that they would be preparing for First Communion next year, thinking about how easy it was for me to just believe what was happening in the reverent silence, and how hard it was to explain it satisfactorily to a 6-year-old.

His understanding and trust in transubstantiation won’t come through osmosis by silently looking at the elevated host. It didn’t for me–or you. It will take lots of explanation, lots of tumbling around in his brain, lots of conversations and questions before he will be able to trust in our shared Catholic belief about the mystery of the Eucharist.

And if people like me and his parents and his teachers don’t take the time to talk with him about it over the years, he’ll make up his own mind . . . When that day comes (if it comes, please, no!), it will be near impossible for him to trust in any different understanding because those of us around him have been silent.

Bottom line: Information and transparency build trust. If we want to create a healthy culture, we must articulate what we know and believe first–and often–before we can settle into the silence of assumed agreement. And even then, we cannot be afraid to talk about them again and again and again.