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Silence and Discernment of the Deacon

How do we know which voices to listen to?

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The other day I saw a young lady I know who had a sticker on her backpack that said, “Silence is death.” I know this teenager well enough that I could ask her about the sticker. She told me that the saying originated in the 1980s when the AIDS crisis was fully blown, and some people wanted to raise awareness about the problem.

Nowadays, I gathered, it has become a general slogan for people who want to raise awareness about the various problems that plague our society. “People have to talk about things,” my young friend told me earnestly. “If we don’t talk, more people will die. And fear is keeping people from talking.”

There is a great deal of truth in this sentiment. God gave us voices to speak, and we can use those voices to inform one another about the dangers that are around us. However, as a general rule, it doesn’t seem that silence is our greatest societal problem. It seems to me, rather, that our biggest problem is the great cacophony of sound that surrounds us, preaching almost every conceivable message, many of which are directly contradictory to the next voice we will encounter blaring from our phones, laptops, tablets, car radios, televisions and shop windows.

How do we know which voices to listen to? Is there a method by which we can discern the truth and learn to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit in the midst of so many voices?

Early Church Fathers

In the fifth century, an abbot by the name of Diadochus of Photice gave an answer so brilliant in its simplicity that it seems best to quote his words, rather than paraphrasing him: “We must maintain great stillness of mind, even in the midst of our struggles. We shall then be able to distinguish between the different types of thoughts that come to us: those that are good, those sent by God, we will treasure in our memory; those that are evil and inspired by the devil we will reject. A comparison with the sea may help us. A tranquil sea allows the fisherman to gaze right to its depths. No fish can hide there and escape his sight. The stormy sea, however, becomes murky when it is agitated by the winds. The very depths that it revealed in its placidness, the sea now hides. The skills of the fishermen are useless.”

This observation by a great though relatively unknown early Church Father sums up the need for silence in our lives in one pithy paragraph. Broadly speaking, the Church Fathers understood that our minds are the principal battleground in the ongoing spiritual warfare.

Later, writers identified three types of “voices” that might speak in our minds: the voice of God, the voice of the devil, and the voice of the world. The first step to learning to distinguish between these three voices is to cultivate an interior silence, a stillness of mind and heart. The Fathers believed that it was possible to learn, from long practice at the feet of a spiritual master, to calm the racing of our own minds and discern the difference between the voice of God and that of the evil one. This ability seems to be as necessary as ever in the modern world.

Periods of Silence

The importance of periods of silence in the life of a deacon cannot be overstated. The present and developing priest shortage means that the demands on a deacon’s time will become greater over time.

At the same time, many deacons find it necessary to maintain a full-time day job and are perhaps supporting a family. Meanwhile, the darkness and confusion in our culture grow deeper every day.

Today deacons find themselves increasingly vulnerable to burnout, mental and physical exhaustion, and a diffusion of efforts that often proves to be fatal to effective ministry.

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St. Joseph: Man of Silence

“Joseph’s silence is not mutism; it is a silence full of listening, an industrious silence, a silence that brings out his great interiority. ‘The Father spoke a word, and it was his Son,’ comments Saint John of the Cross — ‘and it always speaks in eternal silence, and in silence, it must be heard by the soul.’”

— Pope Francis, General Audience, Dec. 15, 2021

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Focus on essentials, clarity about the truth and the ability to speak and act in the name of Christ the Servant are essential qualities in an effective minister and must be cultivated in our lives.

Diadochus points us in the direction of the only real way to develop these qualities. We must maintain regular periods of silence in which we turn off the voices of the world and the devil and listen to the voice of Christ.

Very few deacons will be able to afford the luxury of a 30-day Ignatian retreat, but we should all take the time for a periodic weekend silent retreat and establish regular times for personal prayer. Time before the Blessed Sacrament will be especially fruitful in the life of a deacon. Our Lord, who withholds nothing from those who love him, will fill your soul with grace and insight. We will then be able, to use Diadochus’ analogy, to see into the depths of the turbulent sea that is the world in which we live.

DEACON CARL SOMMER is a deacon in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. He and his wife, Anne, have two adult children. He has a master’s degree in historical theology and is a well-known teacher and speaker in the archdiocese.

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A Great Spiritual Teacher

Diadochus of Photice was one of the greatest spiritual teachers of the fifth century, although you would be hard-pressed to find one Catholic in a thousand today who has even heard of him. His great work, “One Hundred Chapters on Spiritual Perfection,” was used by later teachers in both the East and the West. In Western spiritual theology, Diadochus influenced the Spanish mystical tradition. And in the East, Diadochus’ teachings became one of the foundations of what later became known as The Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

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