With these words your priests opened the holy season of Lent last week at the Ash Wednesday Masses. Lent is a time of fasting (in German, Lent is Fastenzeit or “fasting time”), and in normal times the best fast is from food. We must fast from food and drink, but I think in our time it’s even more important to fast from noise. God created the world in silence; the sun, the moon, and the stars move in silence. In silence, when night had completed half its course, God came into this world at Bethlehem, and in the silence of the early dawn 33 years later He rose from death. God is the friend of silence, and in the silence of the heart God speaks. We must cultivate not just silence of the ears, but silence of the eyes, stillness of the body, quieting of the mind: silence of the soul. The world, the flesh, and the devil conspire to shout down the silent Word who speaks to us in silence. We must endeavor to regain our peace in a disturbed and disturbing world. Virtually unlimited digital media amplifies the turmoil that confronts us 24/7. Commercial news media sell their product by insisting that almost everything is a “crisis,” but I think there are darker forces behind this constant agitation (what we call “stress”). Shrieks and howls, anger and disturbance, panic and revolution mark the demonic, of whom commercial media are only the witless instruments. The most effective assault of the evil one in our time is noise, but we have a most effective defensive weapon: choosing silence.
“Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert.” He goes into the wastes of Judah, the rocky solitudes where not even a leaf rustles or a stream murmurs. Absolute stillness. After forty days, a noise breaks into the stillness, tempting him with food, glamour, and power. Let us consider only the second temptation: Satan shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant: every city on earth with every sound and light generated by every entertainment venue, every movie and every song ever produced (Netflix tells us we can have access to 3.5 million movies and 5 billion songs, all for one low price). “I shall give to you all this power and glory, for it has been given over to me, and I may give it to whomever I wish.” Satan owns the power of 5G, the glory of every glittering skyscraper and every glamorous movie star has been given over to him, and He will sell it to us, for a price: “if you worship me.” The constant endorphin hits social media offers us, the comfort of always-accessible entertainment right in my pocket, the glowing blue light from my own personal screen, controlled by me, the world at my fingertips, on demand, is all available for a price: you must turn your thoughts from God, from the study of his will, and you must worship me. You must give your time and thoughts to me, not to God. And that is the way of death, because our core reality is the divine, not the demonic. The further we turn from God, the more we lose touch with reality. Our lives become “virtual,” meaningless, incomprehensible, not worth living. The rising suicide rate among teenage girls, who especially prone to “living in their phones,” dramatically manifests how lethal the virtual world can be. “You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone” is the first commandment, not because God is power-hungry but because it is good for us. Christ flatly says this to Satan: put God first, and everything else will follow in beautiful order. To serve the artificial worlds now made possible by current technology simply renders us incomprehensible to ourselves. The constant demonic noise all around us is designed to keep us from looking at the true God who made us, dwells within us, and loves us infinitely. We must choose: God or nothing. If not God, then nothing. The “virtual worlds” clever people invent and sell to others are really nothing at all, and lead to nothingness.
It’s not easy to step away from this virtual world of nonstop entertainment. It is not easy to deny ourselves some music when we feel lonely. It is difficult to keep the silence when every news network frightens us into keeping them on. They tell us that they provide the “news you need to know.” We have the news that you need to be safe, and to keep up with everyone else, and to be smart in life. But of course that’s just a cheap advertising trick. We do need to know there is a war in Ukraine, but we don’t need to know every detail. Reading one update a day is sufficient. Ukraine needs our prayers and our material support much more than our curiosity right now.
On Sundays I do my morning prayers outside as the sun rises, in the stillness of a city still in bed. This morning I rode through empty streets to Land’s End before sunrise with my breviary. At a bench overlooking the mighty Pacific, all I could hear was a soft wind on the bushes, the quiet fluttering of sparrows, and the rhythmic waves on the shore. About a half hour into my prayer time, I heard a disturbing noise approaching. The Parks truck pulled up, and the good man who empties the trash cans jumped out to do his work. He keeps his FM rock station on loud, with windows down, so he can hear it as he makes his rounds. I waved to him, and he greeted me with “nice day isn’t it?” I said it certainly was, but wondered how he could appreciate it with all that artificial noise pouring out his windows. He’s a good man, because we are all good, made in God’s image, but made more for silence than for noise. Alas, we are all pathologically addicted to noise.
The first step to recovery is to turn it off. It’s hard to do, but worth attempting at least during Lent. I listen to either a podcast or classical music every morning while washing up, and then again while driving. Every Lent I turn it all off cold turkey, but withdrawal is painful. On Friday everybody in the office had a headache because we all gave up sweets for Lent. For the first few days the silence in my mornings was painful, but just yesterday (Day Four) I was thinking how good it felt to do my morning stretches in silence. Try to get over the hump this Lent, to regain your peace by refusing the noise. Only in the silence of the heart can God’s lovely voice be heard, and only the single-hearted can see Him. Let’s try our best to quiet ourselves and regain a single-hearted devotion for Him who alone loves us as we need to be loved.