By FR. ROLANDO V. DELA ROSA, OP
Three days from now, ashes will be sprinkled on the crown of our heads as we observe Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40-day Lenten Season. During this season, we are enjoined to perform penitential practices like fasting, prayer, and alms-giving.Onepenitential practice we often neglect is SILENCE.
In the past, when the priest imposed the ashes on my forehead in the form of a cross, he intoned. “From dust you came, to dust you shall return.” I understood the ashes on my forehead as a reminder of my mortality. But now that I consider silence as an indispensable Lenten practice, I see the cross on my head as words that were burned to ashes to give way to silence.
Contemporary culture has conditioned us to think that words are more powerful than silence.
Silence is fast becoming a scarce commodity in our verbose and noisy world. Come to think of it, today even elevators, computers, cell phones, alarm clocks, doors, and wristwatches speak. Wherever we go, the radio, TV, the iPod, even cars and buses bombard our eardrums with non-stop sound bytes masquerading as music.
There was a time when it was easy to escape the noise by going to a far-away, private place. Not anymore. When the cell phone rings, the whole world knows where we are, and turning it off creates useless worries. Not to answer it may be risky for it may entail a loss of connection. So, even when we are in a quiet place, the cell phone provokes so much internal noise that it is impossible to experience silence.
In our world of machines, silence has acquired another meaning. When the whirring or droning of our appliances stops, panic immediately sets in. The silence of machines signals a malfunction. “Is there a brown-out?” Since living with machines makes us think and act like machines, when people are silent, we conclude that there must be something wrong with them. When a wife gives the husband the silent treatment, we might think that the couple is on the brink of separation.
Ash Wednesday is a good time to appreciate silence once again. A good beginning is to remove from our minds this misunderstanding: We often think of silence as absence or emptiness. We wrongly think that for silence to exist, there must be the absence of words and noises. In truth, silence is not absence, but PRESENCE, not emptiness but fullness. Through social networking, strangers babble and chatter but there is hardly any real conversation. They talk and gossip, but seldom converse. CCT cameras make us visible to people everywhere, but our visibility does not translate into real presence.
In our generation, where everything must be quick and instantaneous, we are like passengers in a roller-coaster. Everything around us whizzes by, appearing like a blur. We see things but we hardly can figure them out. That is what happens when we allow words to overwhelm us, we sacrifice DEPTH for speed, quality for quantity.
The French philosopher Max Picard says that silence is the central place of faith, where we give the Word back to the God from whom we first received it. On Ash Wednesday, we walk the streets with the dusty remains of burned words on our foreheads, eloquent signs of the dismal failure of speech and noise and our desperate need for silence.