SDG emerges from silence…

The Ordination of St. Stephen as Deacon, Vittore Carpaccio, 1511 (detail).
The Ordination of St. Stephen as Deacon, Vittore Carpaccio, 1511 (detail). (photo: Register Files)

…in more ways than one.

Not quite four years ago I announced that I was undertaking seminary studies for a graduate degree in theology as a candidate for ordination to the permanent diaconate at Seton Hall University’s Immaculate Conception Seminary — and went into intermittent academic semi-hiatus. Certainly I haven’t posted here a lot lately.

Now — emerging from five days of silence under the discipline of my diaconal class’s canonical retreat — I’m overjoyed to say that the time of preparation is drawing to an end.

Two and a half weeks ago, I and my 21 classmates were in the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark for our graduation Mass.

One week from today, on Saturday, June 4, we hope and expect to return to the Cathedral Basilica for our ordination Mass.

The next day, Sunday, June 5, I expect to be serving my first Mass (and preaching my first homily) at St. John’s Catholic Church in Orange, New Jersey. (If you live anywhere in the area, please consider yourself invited to attend the ordination, my first Mass, or both.)

As I noted in that announcement four years ago, 2012 was a momentous year for our family, and a lot has changed since then. Our eldest, Sarah, began college studies at Christendom College. This year she graduated second in her class and gave the salutatorian address (salutation?) at her commencement exercises (Sarah’s address starts around the 7:50 mark). In September, our second-born will head off to college.

Our seventh, Matthew, was born in 2012. Now, not quite four, he’s learning to make critical judgments about movies (no idea where he gets that from).

Four years ago, as I noted in my 2012 post, Suz and I celebrated our 21st anniversary. Math being what it is, this year we will celebrate 25 years of wedded bliss. (Well…math isn’t what made it blissful!) Next year we will celebrate 25 years as Catholics. (Within the last four years, Suz and I each passed two notable “half life anniversaries”: Our marriage, and our lives as Catholics, now occupy more than half our lives.)

But this coming Saturday will be in some ways the most significant change in my life, not only since I became Catholic or was married, but arguably since my baptism, and maybe ever.

Baptism brings about an ontological change. I was scarcely a month old when this change occurred, but nevertheless I crossed from death to life, from original sin to sanctifying grace, from separation from Christ to incorporation into Christ. (Confirmation also brings about an ontological change, but the difference between the non-confirmed and the confirmed isn’t as dramatic.)

Matrimony confers a particular vocation. Of course we are all born with the universal vocation to eternal beatitude (a vocation for which baptism ideally equips us). Beyond that, though, some and not others are called to the vocation of marriage, just as some and not others are called to the vocation of religious life, or to the vocation of Holy Orders.

Holy Orders, though, is different from matrimony or the religious life in that it confers both a particular vocation and an ontological change. Like baptism, Holy Orders changes us forever: Next Saturday, my fellow candidates and I will cross from the lay state to the clerical state; we will become deacons forever.

This is an awesome, humbling thing. In this past week, during my five-day retreat, I have had ample opportunity to be both awed and humbled by it. There is nothing like silence to bring clarity, perspective, and illumination.

I don’t want to talk too much about the silent retreat experience, partly because I’m not sure it’s the sort of thing that should be talked about, certainly not quickly or easily. Our social media culture very easily mines every kind of experience for content. We blog our outward lives and our inward thoughts; our memories of the past, our hopes or fears for the future, and above all whatever is happening right this second.

Nothing intrinsically wrong with that — I’m doing it right now — but when we do it constantly and automatically, there is a danger of developing a kind of content-level outlook that starts to break down experiences as they are happening for what we can say about them on social media, and in the process the experience itself is half missed and half arrested.

The photo goes up on Snapchat or Instagram, but we never really took in the sight itself. We regurgitate what we have barely started to chew, and the long process of rumination and digestion is bypassed, or at least diminished. Writing is a way of thinking and processing, but it isn’t always the best way to begin thinking about or processing every kind of experience.

I will say this. I have often echoed the sentiments of writers from Pascal to T.S. Eliot to Cardinal Dolan on the dangers of living in a world in which there is so little tolerance for silence — and I always believed it, but I never appreciated it as deeply as I came to this week.

“All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone,” Pascal said. And Søren Kierkegaard, in a great passage I quoted in my review of one of my favorite films of all time, Into Great Silence, wrote:

The present state of the world and the whole of life is diseased. If I were a doctor and were asked for my advice, I would reply: Create silence! The Word of God cannot be heard in the noisy world of today. And even if it were blazoned forth with all the panoply of noise so that it could be heard in the midst of all the other noise, then it would no longer be the Word of God. Therefore create Silence.

To that, I have nothing constructive to add, so (for now) I will fall silent.