By Deacon John De Gano
My wife, Cheryl, writes a lot of environmental reports and documents for a living. She has honed her craft and is always reminding me to be precise in my word usage.
“Words have meaning,” she tells me. “We need to be precise in our language.”
Years ago, I had an experience of this while serving as a fledgling substitute teacher.
I probably don’t have to tell you that substitute teachers are a godsend to the school system, but on this one particular day, I could have done better in my choice and my students called me on it.
They were elementary aged, full of life and wonder. I had attempted to get order so that we could begin the class, but they were incessantly talking and yammering that the usual methods of getting their attention were failing.
In desperation, I reached back into my high school Spanish vocabulary and uttered a single word, “¡Cállate!”
Immediately the class froze, silence deafening the once pulsing air.
One young person turned in their seat, looked up at me and, as if speaking for the entire class, said, “Don’t say ‘cállate.’ Say ‘silencio.’ It’s a better word.”
“What’s the difference?” I replied. “I got your attention, didn’t I?”
Had this happened today, Cheryl would have reminded me that there is a huge difference between the words. The latter means ‘silence.’ The former means ‘be quiet,’ or ‘shut up.’
My student was clearly all too familiar with the differences. I was not.
Perhaps in the moment I was channeling my high school Spanish teacher who had had a bad day when she used it with us, but now, here it resurfaced, with power and force.
That brief exchange continues to bubble up in my memory from time to time, and I regret my response to this day.
We all deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. We all deserve to be heard. My students were actively listening to each other but were clearly ignoring me and the need to start the class session.
I felt frustrated. They did not respond to the normal requests and attempts to get their attention, and not being a seasoned teacher, I did not have a fallback plan like a whistle or other instrument to command their immediate compliance.
I had only words.
Silence was, of course, the better word. It is an act of self-control. We are called to take charge of our actions, bring them into a contained space and reflect on what we need to deal with in order not to have our emotions erupt and create chaos for those around us and for those attempting to guide us into learning.
Many of us fear silence. We are not attuned to ourselves and therefore silence seems like being out of control. We associate it mostly with prayer and those who are uncomfortable with silence find prayer painful and even intimidating.
We protect ourselves by surrounding ourselves with noise: the radio or TV. We fill our minds with snapshots and social media feeds, anything to keep from focusing within. To avoid having to reflect on our lives, do a spiritual check up on our day and seek to do better in the future.
Instead we look for ways to shut down the conversation, escape the silence and the opportunity for self-reflection and spiritual growth. We literally ‘shut up’ our faith and stagnate in plain sight.
Too many of us thrive in the chaos because we feel safe there. We don’t have to focus on ourselves because there are so many others seeking help that we can hide in the crowd like some do at Mass. They attend but never get involved. They are the so-called faithful ones that Jesus tells on the Day of Judgment, “I never knew you.”
We need to remember too, what Jesus says about listening: “I stand at the door and knock, and if you hear my voice and open the door I will come in and make my home with you.”
Silence is the better word, indeed.
It is in silence that we discover our humility; our need for spiritual growth and discernment. It is in retreating from our noisy world and lifestyle that we can reassess our choices and make amends to do better in the future. And it is in silence that we encounter the Holy Spirit, our guide and teacher, who reminds us that we were created ‘very good’ and that God loves us as we are and will help us to love ourselves better if we allow ourselves to be wounded, healed and servants of God’s love to others.
And Psalm 65 gives us another reason to practice silence: “Let our silence be praise to our God!”
Showing our respect for the One who made us.
And in the silence, we actively listen.
God may be speaking to us right now – even through the words (and wisdom) of a young child.
John De Gano is a deacon at St. Catherine of Alexandria parish in Riverside.