One hundred years ago this week, the United States entered World War I. On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. He promised that this “war to end all wars” would “make the world safe for democracy” by fighting for and with “the principles of right, and of fair play.”
Wilson’s vision for the war was ambitious. “We are at the beginning of an age,” he said in his address to Congress, “in which it will be insisted that the same standards of conduct and of responsibility for wrong done shall be observed among nations and their governments that are observed among the individual citizens of civilized states.”
One hundred years later, it may be true that the “same standards of conduct” are observed among nations and governments as among their individual citizens. But not in the way in which Wilson expected.
In the 100 years since Wilson’s address, the standards of conduct expected of governments and of citizens have declined dramatically. Instead of seeing the conduct of governments rise to the character of their citizens, both have declined.
The last presidential election, in which the moral failings of both candidates were on full display, demonstrated that we no longer expect high standards of virtue from our fellow citizens, from our leaders or from our governments.
To be sure, Wilson’s era was not perfect — far from it. But it is clear that Wilson served a nation in which the impact of the Gospel on culture and public life of the nation was palpable. He lived in an imperfect world, but in a largely Christian culture. It would be naïve to suggest that the America of 100 years ago, or even America at its founding, was an entirely Christian nation.
But at the beginning of the Great War, Wilson looked out from the White House at an America, and a Europe, in which the impact of the Gospel was far clearer than it is today. The importance of the family, the Church and the community, in the lives of ordinary people, was clearer.
The purpose of public life was understood to be connected to serving justice. Wilson lived in a time in which terms like “charity,” “freedom” and “dignity” had meaning drawn from Christian tradition. He lived in a time in which life’s meaning was not the subject of self-definition.
Wilson believed that he, like all people, could be an instrument of divine Providence. He was not a saint. But he wanted to serve God through public service. Today, that concept seems absolutely lost on our national leaders and, sadly, on many of our friends and neighbors.
One hundred years after his congressional address, it is clear to most of us that we are no longer living in anything resembling a Christian culture: that rather than living in a world in which the Gospel has a role, contemporary public society has become hostile to the Gospel and to believers. Wilson wanted to make the world safe for democracy — 100 years later, democracy without virtue is increasingly unsafe for us.
Tonight, I don’t intend to talk about how the wholesale secularization of our culture has taken place. The major points of that trajectory are clear to most of us.
The sexual revolution, which has occasioned the slaughter of the unborn and the absolute decimation of the family, has played a major role. So has the technological revolution, through which technocratic and ugly utilitarian ethics have come to dominate our worldview, and individual consumption of mass and social media has flattened our souls. So has an economy that has been gradually divorced from the principles of Christian personalism, which should guide it and which it should serve. And, obviously, the philosophical enlightenment of much earlier centuries, with its materialism and skepticism, is a major root cause of what has unfolded in the last 100 years.
Many people have done, and will do, a better job of explaining the impact of those phenomena on the comprehensive undoing of Christian culture that the West has experienced over the past 100 years.
Tonight, I would like to speak as a pastor not about what has happened, but about what we can do, as disciples of Jesus Christ and as the members and institutions of the Body of Christ, in the midst of the secular culture we now inhabit. I’d like to talk about the revolution of the New Evangelization, the power of God to transform the world through us, and to spark a renewal in the Church and a renewal in our public culture.
And by the way, this revolution — the revolution of the New Evangelization — will not be televised!
In a particular way, I would like to talk about our interior lives and about the way in which our personal discipleship of Jesus Christ can be a transformative force for the Gospel in the midst of a world sorely needing it.
To this end, I am building on the theme of this year’s symposium: “In the World but Not of the World: Paradigms for the Evangelization of American Culture.”
Tonight, in an “age of noise,” in a world of constant rapid-fire tweets, punditry and chaos, I would like to talk about the power of our silence: silence in our hearts; silence in our lives; and silence in our chaotic, clamoring and broken culture.
Because we are at Benedictine College, I would like to begin with the Rule of St. Benedict.
The Rule was written by St. Benedict in the sixth century, and it contains spiritual wisdom that has guided the Church for 1,500 years.
For many of you, especially the monks of this abbey, the Rule is very familiar. But even those of you who have not directly encountered the rule have likely been influenced by it, in more ways than you might be aware. And although the Rule was written for monks, it can be applied to all of our lives.
St. Benedict says that monks, and by extension, all of us, “ought to have a zeal for silence at all times.”
For Benedict, silence is the sign of a disciple of Jesus. He says that “to speak and to teach are the province of the master; whereas that of the disciple is to be silent and to listen.”
If we want to follow Jesus, we must be silent, so that we can hear his voice. The gift of silence, Benedict teaches, opens us to hear the word of God and be transformed by it. The very first words of the prologue of the Rule of St. Benedict are: “Listen, my son, and with your heart hear the principles of your Master.”
Without silence, we cannot hear Christ’s voice, or become his disciples — nor can we be evangelists. In his new book, The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher writes that “if we are going to be for the world as Christ meant for us to be, we are going to have to spend more time away from the world, in deep prayer and substantial spiritual training.” This was precisely what the Rule of St. Benedict understood.
“Time away from the world” does not mean that if we want to be evangelists, we all need to become monks. Nor does it mean that we have to move to far-flung rural communities, grinding our own wheat and spending our days without noise. That’s not what the Lord is calling us to, or even what St. Benedict was calling his monks to.
Instead, if we want to build Christian culture through a New Evangelization and transform hearts for Christ, we need to cultivate a spirituality of silence, which is the sign of discipleship — most especially silence before the Lord, in adoration of the holy Eucharist.
In contemporary culture, it seems to me, we have lost the ability to be silent. In fact, we face more grave obstacles to silence than at any other time in human history.
As all of you know, we live in a time of extraordinary technology, accessible and useful to all of us. And that technology is really a gift. But it comes at a high price, and we have to be careful about how our technologies impact us.
Neuroscientists have been talking for years about the effect of our smartphones on our neural pathways and, as a result, on our habits. We know that the brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter we might call “the feel-good chemical,” in three specific instances: when we’re excited, or anticipating something we expect will be rewarding; when we have the experience of being validated, or liked; and when we have the experience of being connected and accepted by a large group — the experience of belonging.
When we pick up our phones to seek out new information, to Google something we’re interested in, the brain releases dopamine. When we receive a text or an email or an instant message from our friends, the brain releases dopamine. When we scroll through Facebook or Twitter, or a post or a photograph is liked or commented on by other people, the brain releases dopamine.
Our bodies are very perceptive. And our brains become conditioned to give us a rush of dopamine whenever our phones buzz in our pockets or when we pick them up. We get a dopamine rush even in expectation of what might be waiting for us when we unlock our phones or tablets. This forms, in our minds, something neurologists call a “feedback loop.” We get dopamine in anticipation, even more when we’re using our phones, and, then, when dopamine levels drop, we unthinkingly reach for our phones for another rush.
Casinos understand dopamine feedback loops and design their games around them. Tobacco companies understand them, and so do drug dealers. And so do the technology companies that manufacture our phones and develop their apps.
So the impact of our devices is not only about the content we consume. It’s about the effect of the devices themselves on our brains and on our lives.
The result of our feedback loops is that more and more of us — and none of us are immune from this — develop near compulsive relationships with our technology. And those compulsive relationships can be detrimental to the other important relationships in our lives — relationships with our spouses, our children, our friends and Jesus Christ.
The writer Patricia Snow says that “researchers have demonstrated that all it takes is a single phone on a table, even if that phone is turned off, for the conversations in the room to fade in number, duration and emotional depth.”
Our relationships — our friendships and marriages — have been changed by the ubiquity of very powerful technology.
Beyond disrupting our relationships, our devices are, in the words of Catholic speaker Marc Barnes, “an invitation to restlessness.” According to some reports, North Americans have a slightly shorter attention span than goldfish.
Most of us know the experience of beginning a book, and then, after just a few minutes, reaching for a screen to check a text or social media. A friend told me recently that she has basically given up on books, because she knows she won’t be able to concentrate for the duration of the whole book.
The effect of our diminished ability to concentrate is that we form conclusions based on first impressions, instead of careful consideration of the facts. We have public debates in sound bites, which must grow ever more shocking, just to hold the attention of the viewers.
And for believers, prayer is ever more a struggle — we experience restlessness and distraction with intensity. It becomes ever more difficult to think carefully, let alone to experience the profound intimacy of real contemplation, in silence before the Lord.
Our technology has made many of us distracted participants in a distracted cultured. It’s ever harder to engage with what is real and right in front of us, when the siren song of our devices promises connection and validation — and the neurochemical stimulus that accompany them. And the result of our neurological conditioning is, for many people, a new kind of loneliness.
The answer to that restlessness, and that loneliness, is rediscovering the gift of silence — and for us, as Catholics, especially silence before the Blessed Sacrament — the presence of Jesus Christ in the gift of the holy Eucharist.
There is a story about a peasant, a poor farmer, who lived outside of Ars, the French village where the great saint Jean-Marie Vianney was parish priest in the 19th century. The peasant would come each day to pray before the Christ in the monstrance for hours.
One day, Abbe Jean-Marie asked the man what he said for so long before the Eucharist. The peasant replied beautifully. “I say nothing,” he said. “I look at him, and he looks at me.”
Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is a stark contrast to our culture of distraction, in which so many of us can hardly look at one another at all, or hardly hold a conversation without the siren song of diversion and amusement. When we come before Christ, we leave aside every kind of sensory input, every kind of distraction, and we lay bare our hearts: our joys and sorrows, our hopes and our crosses.
Conversation with Christ, in the presence of the Eucharist, requires that we make ourselves present to another person and to a moment. Conversation with Christ, in the presence of the Eucharist, requires that we acknowledge our distractions and give them to the Lord, and trust him — as we learn to reveal ourselves to Christ and to receive his gift of revealing himself, and to concentrate, in silence and intimacy, enough to hear to the small, still voice of the Lord.
Talking with Jesus in the presence of the Eucharist requires that we look at him and acknowledge the mystery of his presence, and that we learn to appreciate what it really means to be looked upon by him who loves us. We each desire to be known by another — and adoration of the Lord, at the heart, is the experience of being seen, known and cherished not simply by another, but by our very Creator.
The silence, and openness, concentration and presence that the Lord asks of us when we come before him, isn’t easy. But it is transformative.
In adoration before the Lord, we build a relationship with our Savior and Creator — we grow in love for the Lord, and we grow in our knowledge of his love for us. And that relationship with Christ — that present, interpersonal, authentic relationship with the Lord — becomes the foundation through which we can build real and lasting relationships with other people.
When we learn to have sustained conversations with the Lord, when we learn to be recognize him in the silence of his presence, and when we learn to share ourselves, and to receive what he gives us, we grow in the virtues which allow us to do the same with our spouses, children and friends.
“God’s first language,” said St. John of the Cross, “is silence.”
Learning to speak God’s first language — learning to be silent and to hear the Master — is the urgent first step in transforming our culture. We can speak to the world as the Lord does only if we rediscover his voice in silence. From a contemplative relationship with the Lord, we are transformed, and we learn the power of his voice.
That, precisely, is why rediscovering the gift of silent adoration before the Lord is essential to the New Evangelization. If we truly want to become evangelists of our culture, we must first become prayerful disciples of the Lord, in silence and in his presence.
In silence, we learn how God speaks to us. And when we learn how God speaks to us, we can speak effectively for him as missionary disciples. We can only begin to meaningfully proclaim the word of God when we have heard God’s word spoken in the silence of our hearts.
We can only begin to proclaim the “peace that surpasses all understanding” if we have experienced that peace in the silence of our interior dialogue with the Lord.
Only from a “dialogue of silence” with the Word of God can we learn to have a meaningful dialogue with other people, amid the noise and chaos of our culture.
The small, still voice of the Lord, which cuts through the empty noise of the world, empowers us to proclaim the Gospel. The New Evangelization depends on the depths of our own interior silence, our prayer before the Lord.
Cardinal Robert Sarah says that “the true revolution comes from silence; it leads us toward God and toward others so that we can place ourselves humbly at their service.”
The “true revolution” of the New Evangelization begins in silence before the Lord. We often resist that truth, because it is difficult. We often look for programs or itineraries or distractions, because silence is daunting.
Becoming holy requires that we abandon the pleasures of our culture of distraction and the comforts of our habits. Becoming holy requires that we enter in the most mysterious places we can fathom — the mystery of silence, in which we are alone with ourselves and with the Lord. The Lord is waiting to transform us in the deep and intimate friendship at the heart of the New Evangelization. This can be terrifying. And yet there is nothing more satisfying — because there is nothing more satisfying than the love of Jesus Christ.
Once again, Cardinal Sarah says that “it takes courage to free oneself from everything that weighs down our life, because we love nothing so much as appearances, ease and the husk of things. Carried away toward the exterior by his need to say everything, the garrulous man cannot help being far from God, incapable of any profound spiritual activity. In contrast, the silent man is a free man. The world’s chains have no hold on him.”
We discover the love of God — and transmit it to the world — when we learn the language of the Word, in the mystery of silence. Pope St. John Paul II says that modern man can know the Lord, and is thus able to proclaim him, “above all by letting himself be educated in an adoring silence, because at the summit of the knowledge and experience of God there is his absolute transcendence.”
To proclaim Jesus, we must know him. To stand as “signs of contradiction” in the age of noise, we must know silence.
Sacred silence, before the presence of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, sparks a “revolution” in our hearts which transforms the world through our holiness. This is what it truly means to be “in the world but not of the world.”
One hundred years ago, Woodrow Wilson said that nations should be held to the same standards as their citizens. Dear brothers and sisters, if we want our nation to be held to the standard of holiness, we must become holy. Together, we must undertake the true revolution that begins in silence.
Bishop James Conley is the bishop of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska.
He delivered a version of these remarks at the
Benedictine College New Evangelization Symposium,
in Atchison, Kansas, on April 1.