For the beginning of Advent, we propose a meditation by Fr. Emmanuele Silanos on how silence, itself an echo of the Holy Night, can help us to truly await the coming of Jesus.

“Before the break of daylight we fervently keep vigil, a hush befalls creation/In silence sings the mystery”.[1] The words of this hymn, written by the cloistered sisters of the monastery of Vitorchiano, encapsulate the meaning of Advent. They speak of the coming of the Word of God, the Mystery that takes on flesh; they speak of the Word becoming tangible and erupting into the lives of those who,“fervently keep[ing] vigil”, await him, .

Our own expectation is characterized by silence, which is the setting in which the Incarnation takes place. “A hush befalls Creation” goes the hymn, echoing the words of St. Paul who says Creation itself awaits revelation (Rm 8:19).

Why silence? Why should we remain in silence? We need silence in order to listen to the voice of God that reverberates through all things for, to quote the hymn once more, in silence sings the Mystery.”


1 Silence as expectation

O God, You are my God

(Psalm 63)


The first chapter of the Gospel According to St. Luke tells two stories, and the protagonist of both is the Archangel Gabriel. He brings to Zachariah the news of the imminent birth of John the Baptist, and then announces to Mary that she has been chosen to be the mother of Jesus. Before the words of the angel, the reaction of the two interlocutors could appear to be the same. Zachariah, in fact, asks, How will I know what you tell me, since my wife and I are old? (Lk 1:18) and Mary, similarly, asks How is it possible for I do not know man? (Lk 1:34). And yet, a profound difference must exist between their two attitudes, so much so that the angel says to Zachariah, You will be mute for nine months because you have not believed my words.

In order to grasp the difference between the position of Zachariah and that of Mary, without getting bogged down in subtle linguistic machinations, we must put ourselves in their shoes. Zachariah is an old priest who is spending his final days carrying around within himself an inconsolable delusion. He regrets that he has not obtained the gift of descendants from God. And so his heart is full of resignation. He is a good man, an authentic believer, law-abiding, but, deep down, he no longer expects anything. All of his words, even the most erudite and honest, betray an ultimate mistrust.

We often find ourselves with the same attitude of Zachariah. The Fathers of the Church called it acedia and placed it among the capital sins. Acedia is the enemy of hope. It is the obstacle that obstructs our expectation, rendering our heart incapable of wonder.

Unlike Zachariah, Mary lives in hope. She is determined entirely and solely by expectation. Mary is a living prayer, a question incarnate.

For both of these protagonists, the encounter with the angel ends in silence. For Zachariah, this silence is obligatory, a form of punishment. Mary, instead, desires this silence. It is the space of a true companionship; it gives her the possibility of a real and profound relationship with the mysterious Presence that has entered her life. And the angel left her, St. Luke says, an expression which gives one goosebumps (Lk 1:38).  But we know that Mary was not left alone.

From the day of the angel’s visit, Mary’s life was even more dominated by expectation than before. She lived expectant of the moment when the presence of her Son would have been fully revealed. Her whole life was an increasingly intense experience of this expectation. As Don Giussani said of her, “The Virgin Mary…we cannot imagine her if not as continuously asking that the glory of her Son might appear on the horizon of the world and that all men might know Him.”[2]

Mary helps us to understand that silence corresponds profoundly to our deepest nature because silence is awaiting something that must happen. On another occasion, Fr. Giussani commented: “The heart is made of expectation, structured and conceived as expectation: just as a mother conceives a fetus, in the same way God conceives our heart as expectation. In the silence of all things, even before the word, vibrates the expectation of the heart.”[3]

Giussani further elucidated the connection between Mary’s sinless state and the totalizing expectation that characterized her life: “The Immaculate Conception tells us that the purity of human being, a total transparency has already come about historically […] Mary was a pure prayer. […] Before the Annunciation, she was fully defined by the expectation for a response and, after, she was fully defined by the manifestation of the response, all of her person was dominated by it.” [4]

Man at his most authentic lives in the tension of his relationship with God. Taking on the position of the Madonna means therefore recovering our own true nature; it means recuperating an original innocence in front of being.


2 Silence as the purification of desire

Create in me, O God, a pure heart.

(Psalm 51)


Danielou writes: “In Mary, the waiting of the Hebrew people finds its culmination, in the sense that in her converge and flow together all of the preparation, all of the aspiration and inspiration, all of the graces and prefigurations that had filled the Old Testament. […] All of the Old Testament is, in this way, collected in her in a more ardent aspiration, in a spiritual preparation that was more totalizing, for the coming of the Lord.”[5]

Their entire history served to prepare the people of Israel to welcome the coming of Christ. In the figure of the Virgin Mary, we can contemplate the magnificent result of this educative work of God. In Mary, the object of man’s desire, which is grace, becomes clear: “St. Bernard tells us that Mary asked for grace as the only thing she desired: et sempre inveniat gratiam. She did not, like Solomon, ask for wisdom. She asked for grace, Mary did, because grace is the only thing that we need. She asked for grace and obtained it: Ave Maria, gratia plena.[6]

It is clear then  how the apex of silence lived as expectation is the purification of desire. Silence in fact is always full of questions and requests and only time can help bring their truth into focus, through a journey that reaches its vertices in the expectation of grace.

A true experience of silence, therefore, requires us to retrace the itinerary on which the Lord has guided His people, beginning from the education to an original sense of God and arriving, in the end, to Mary, in whom expectation becomes a prayer for pure grace. The characteristic of the grace of God is that it infinitely surpasses man. On this point,  Balthasar comments: “It belongs indispensably to the biblical-christian method that man be prepared to experience that no exercise, no readiness can secure for him or can force for him the coming of God. For this reason, the Christian way to God must necessarily include the experience of desolatio, of the non-experience of the coming of God. The grade of purity and interior readiness can be the same in a dual manner: at one time, I may be granted an experience of the attention and of the closeness of God; another time, I may not. As Jesus repeats in his parables, one must always remain vigilant, without knowing when the Lord or the bridegroom might come.” [7]

From Mary we learn that we are to wait for God without pretending to obtain a response in the time frame and in the manner that we would want. In fact, silence can be an arid experience for months, and even years, as testified by the lives of many saints, such as Therese of Lisieux and Mother Teresa of Calcutta.


3 Silence as contrition

Wash me of all my sins

(Psalm 51)

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,

Because He has visited and redeemed his people

(Lk 1:68)


Immediately after giving birth, Elizabeth, Zachariah’s wife, declares that she wants to name the baby John. All of their relatives, stunned, go to ask the old man who has become mute. He asks for a tablet to write on and confirms Elizabeth’s choice of name. At that moment, his tongue becomes untied.

It is easy to imagine that Zachariah, during nine months of his forced mutism, felt humiliated. It is probable that he often felt the desire to explain himself, to justify the response that he had had, to give his version of what had happened in the temple. As soon as he recovers the use of his voice, however, Zachariah does not set about protesting; he does not begin to complain nor lose time seeking to justify what had happened to him. On the contrary, what burst forth from him is the strongest and most inspired song of praise and thanksgiving to God that we know: the Benedictus, which we recite every morning during Lauds. This song of praise expresses the profound content that grew during those nine months spent in silence. The Benedictus is a prayer that without silence would never have been born. Zachariah understands that the time of silence was for him a gift, a gift even bigger than his own son, because without silence he would not have understood the meaning of the birth of that son.

In this vein we can see a third meaning of silence which is its value as contrition. True silence helps us to grow in true awareness of our sin and in the gratitude for the mercy of God. As don Giussani says, “It is only through contrition that the presence of Christ and the immanence of Christ are splendidly alive in us […] Let us seek contrition during the day, during the evening and the morning, – that it may invest as much as possible all of our day, that it may as much as possible become the beginning of our action- but, above all, contrition at the beginning of the Mass and in the sacrament of confession.” [8]

The Benedictus is the song that remembers the wonders God has worked for His people. But the most beautiful part of his hymn of praise is the moment in which, suddenly, Zachariah changes interlocutor and speaks directly to his son. Looking directly at him, he says: And you, child will be called prophet of the Most High and will prepare His ways before Him (Lk 1:76). The gaze of Zachariah is a gaze born out of silence because it is the gaze of a father that recognizes that his son, ultimately, does not belong to him. Zachariah looks at his son not as his own ransom or his own victory over life; instead, he looks at him according to the mission to which he is called; he welcomes John by welcoming that which God has thought of for him. His gaze is the gaze of virginity.




4 Silence as listening and as joy

To you I call, Lord, do not turn a deaf ear to me:

For if You remain silent, I will be like those who go down into the pit.

(Psalm 27)

Charles de Foucauld wrote, “The desert is profoundly sweet for me; it is beautiful to place yourself in solitude before the eternal things. You feel invaded by the truth.”[9] John the Baptist, once he had grown, flees the world seeking silence and solitude. He goes in search of the desert. Perhaps for this reason we are accustomed to thinking of him as a tough and surly person, almost as a misanthrope. In reality, Danielou defines him as “the man of spiritual joy” and says that he is “the most exultant saint of Scripture.” It is not by chance that his life begins with a leap of joy when, still in the womb of his mother, he recognizes the presence of the Madonna carrying Christ in her womb.

Danielou further writes that the joy of the Baptist lies in “hearing the voice of the Lord.”[10] It is for this reason that he goes to the desert, anticipating the great hermit fathers and Jesus Himself. “He seeks to escape to the desert so that nothing would take him away from that joy”[11], to revel in the company of the Beloved, to listen to the sweet voice of his friend.

Silence provides the space for listening and for joy, which, at the same time, in no way reduces the experience of contrition: “The striking thing about John the Baptist is the mixture in him of a tremendous spirit of penance, and inner jubilation, the union of great penance with great joy. However, there is a link between great penance and deep joy; the greatest penitents have always been the loudest in rejoicing. There is no joy like the joy of Francis of Assisi, of John of the Cross, of the Cure of Ars, of the Fathers of the Egyptian desert” [12]

The moment arrives in which one discovers that silence is the joy of the one who finds true rest in Christ. Aridity, tiredness and distraction do not disappear, but the joy tasted and enjoyed in silence, even only in one instant, remains in the heart as a companion and as an inextricable need. In this way, silence tends to become more and more an experience of rejoicing that floods our daily actions and encounters with lightness and joy.

The joy of silence is exultation for the presence of the bridegroom. Apart from a relationship with Jesus, silence would lose its meaning. During a presentation some years ago, Fr. Leopri told us, “We do not need silence. We need the Lord and, within this need, we find the need for silence as well.”

Christian silence is different from oriental meditation: it is not a space emptied of all else, but a place inhabited by Christ in a privileged way.


5 Silence, origin of mission and of virginity

You will show me the path of life

Fullness of joy in your presence.

(Psalm 16)


The joy of John the Baptist is fulfilled in the mission that was entrusted to him, which was to testify. As Danielou says, “There lay John’s great joy – the joy of seeing the bride meeting the Bridegroom. That was all he wanted. His one wish was to lead souls to Christ, to take them to meet Him. At that moment of meeting his joy was complete. When his disciples left him to follow Christ it was perfect.”[13]

Our mission begins in silence because mission does not consist in thinking of what we need to say to the others, but rather in placing ourselves in a listening posture to what God wants to say to us. For this reason, Guardini affirms that silence is the condition for recognizing the truth and for being able to announce it: “The word is essential and efficacious only when it is born from silence […] Silence opens the interior font from which flows the word.”[14]

In another passage Guardini indicates in silence the sole condition for our constructivity: “Only in silence can the community be formed; only in silence can the Church be built.” [15]

In silence we also learn virginity. Fr. Massimo has always told us to bring the relationship with others into our lived relationship with Christ. In silence, we learn to entrust to God the lives of men; we learn to look at them – to use an expression of Fr. Giussani – keeping the presence of Jesus in the corner of our eye. In a letter to the Fraternity, Fr. Massimo wrote: “With vigilance, we take on a new gaze and we become capable of looking at the world with the eyes of faith. Vigilance allows us to not stop at the surface of things, but to enter into them, to look at the things that all men look at with the eyes of Christ.”

The relationship between silence and virginity can be intuited by whoever thinks deeply about their own need to love and to be loved in truth. Even Paolo Coelho, a writer who is certainly not close to our own experience, testifies to this intuition. His novel, The Alchemist, tells the story of a boy named Santiago who leaves his home “like an adventurer in search of a treasure.” In the desert he meets a girl, Fatima, with whom he falls in love. Santiago finds that he is torn and sad: he loves Fatima and does not want to leave her, but he also knows that he cannot possess her. And so he asks the desert to comprehend the meaning of love “without the sentiment of possession”: “He wandered for a while, keeping the date palms of the oasis within sight. He listened to the wind, and felt the stones beneath his feet. Here and there, he found a shell, and realized that the desert, in remote times, had been a sea. He sat on a stone, and allowed himself to become hypnotized by the horizon. He tried to deal with the concept of love as distinct from possession, and couldn’t separate them. But Fatima was a woman of the desert, and, if anything could help him to understand, it was the desert.”[16]

A true experience of virginity leads us to offer back the persons who are entrusted to us to the One to whom they belong, asking God to show us how to love them truly. The prayer for this to happen is one that can only resound in silence.


6 Silence as contemplation

Your face, O Lord, I seek

(Psalm 27)


“Teach me to seek you, and reveal yourself to me, when I seek you, for I cannot seek you, except you teach me, nor find you, except you reveal yourself. Let me seek you in longing, let me long for you in seeking; let me find you in love, and love you in finding.”[17]

These words of St. Anselm express the ultimate content of silence, the secret that, little by little, can be revealed, maybe after years of journeying. One beautiful and efficacious way to understand this secret is to consider the icon of Christ the Savior of Andrej Rublev. It is said that the features of the face of Jesus were revealed to Rublev directly by God.

The work goes back to the beginnings of the XV century, but it had been lost and was found only at the beginning of the 1800’s, by chance. It was in the hayloft of a Russian farmer, which he used to pass through to get to his stables, and the painted part was facing down. Contact with a humid surface had made most of the image disappear; on the wood, however, there was still a block of color depicting the face of Christ. The rest of the icon is destroyed but the face of Jesus, almost miraculously, was preserved.

The story of this icon can be compared to silence, that permits the face of Christ to emerge from the confusion, from the noise and from the distraction in which our life is immersed. Living silence means allowing the face of Jesus to take up space in our daily lives. It means beginning to see Him again after the first time when, by grace, He showed Himself to us.


7 Silence as Imitation of Christ

Have in yourselves the same sentiments of Jesus Chrsit (Phil 2:5)


There is one last aspect that perhaps needed to be described before all the others: living silence means entering into an experience of the life of Christ. Silence describes the way that Christ faced all of reality because if for the Madonna silence coincided with the expectation that the Son would be fully revealed, then for Jesus it coincided with the prayer that the Father be fully revealed.

In Jesus we find the true depth and meaning of silence: the expectation and the waiting for the design of the Father to be fulfilled; the need to draw away to listen to His voice; the exultation for His response, virginity as the modality for living any relationship. Not only the forty days in the desert but every hour of the life of Jesus was spent within the dimension of silence. Jesus lived in the fullness of the experience to which we are called through silence. Only contrition was not part of Christ’s experience even if He, through His compassion, participates in a certain way in the the pain for sins and in our repentance: think only of his silence in front of the adulterous woman, of His emotion when looking at Jerusalem, of His tears for the death of Lazzarus. Think especially of His tears during the night at Gethsemane.


Silence makes us imitators of Christ, allowing us to fulfill the supreme task of our life. Let us ask God, then, that the time of Advent might be the chance to rediscover the value and the beauty of silence, so that Christ may come to inhabit every instant of our existence: every action, every encounter, every circumstance.

[1] “Before the Break of Daylight”. Hymn of the Trappist Monastery of Vitorchiano, in Book of Hours, Società Cooperativa Editoriale Nuovo Mondo, Milan, 2009, 134-135.

[2] L. Giussani,  L’energia che occorre alla fede [The Energy Necessary for Faith] «Tracce», 5 (2008).

[3] L. Giussani, Tutta la terra desidera il tuo volto [All the Earth Longs to See Your Face], San Paolo, Cinisello Balsamo 2000, 54.

[4] A. Sicari (edited by), Intervista a monsignor Luigi Giussani [Interview with Monsignor Luigi Giussani], «Communio», 98-99, (1988), 214.

[5]  J. Daniélou, The Advent of Salvation, Cluny Media, Providence, RI, 2018, 111.

[6] Ibid.

[7] H.U. von Balthasar, New Elucidations, Ignatius, San Francisco 1986, 88.

[8] L. Giussani, La familiarità con Cristo [Familiarity with Christ], San Paolo, Milano 2008, 18-19.

[9]  C. de Foucauld, Letter to Marie de Bondy, in «Jesus Caritas», 70 (1998).

[10] J. Daniélou, The Advent of Salvation, cit., 77.

[11] ibidem

[12] ibidem

[13] Ivi, 75

[14] R. Guardini, The Inner Life of Jesus, Sophia Institute, Bedford, 1998, 35-36.

[15] Ivi,

[16] P. Coelho, The Alchemist, Harper, New York, 1988, 56.

[17]  Anselm of Aosta, Proslogion, 1.

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