Today, WOF blog contributor and seminarian Christopher Kerzich reflects on the message of Pope Benedict XVI at the recent 46th World Day of Communications. Christopher uses the Pope's insight to discern what it really takes to be a "great conversationalist."
A priest mentor one told me he was often complimented as being a great conversationalist when he focused on listening and not speaking during conversations. This was such an odd concept to me. How could one be an exceptional conversationalist if he doesn’t speak? Maybe I grew accustomed to conversations with the tempo of a Formula One race or to the daily race of sending emails, texts or Facebook messages. How easy has it become for us to simply bide our time until the next time we can communicate? I’m not a monk so why do I need silence in my life? Am I listening or mentally crafting my response to what was said? We have all come up against these questions presented by Pope Benedict XVI in his 46th World Day of Communications message.
The message, titled “Silence and Word: Path of Evangelization,” explores this often overlooked aspect of communication, “the relationship between silence and word.” The Holy Father writes that when word and silence are mutually exclusive, “communication breaks down, either because it gives rise to confusion…or it creates an atmosphere of coldness.” It is when they complement each other that communication is valuable. Looking at these concepts in our own lives, many of us can see conversations that happened, but we are completely oblivious to the point or what was actually being communicated between the lines.
Yes, silence in a conversation can be hard. Isn’t it easy to revert to words to fight a battle with silence that should not exist? The Holy Father attests, “by remaining silent we allow the other person to speak, to express him or herself; and we avoid being tied simply to our own words.” Communication is possible without words; forms of communication can easily be overlooked for the tangible sounds and letters of words. What are we missing by ignoring silence? It is in silence “that we observe the most authentic communication taking place between people who are in love: gestures, facial expressions and body language.”
So what happens to our communication when we don’t run from silence? We come to see the richness of conversations that strengthen our relationships and allow us to truly know another. We are thus capable of “deeper reflection [which] helps us to discover the links between events…to make evaluations, to analyze message…this makes it possible to share thoughtful and relevant opinions, giving rise to an authentic body of shared knowledge.” In order for us to develop these skills, we need “a kind of ‘eco-system’ that maintains a just equilibrium between silence, words, images and sounds.”
Most importantly, we need this “eco-system” in order to listen to God who, “speaks to us even in silence.” It is true, “our language will always prove inadequate and must make space for silent contemplation,” when speaking of God. This reality was ever present in the life of one of the Church’s greatest communicators, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, who spent an hour of each day of his priesthood before the Blessed Sacrament. Communicating God’s message requires time in silent contemplation so that our words are fueled by Christ and not our egos.
How does one incorporate this reality into his or her life? Many of us live in noisy cities or workplaces where communication is constantly flowing, our fingers are numb from texting and we must constantly be “in the loop” with our family, friends or colleagues. A friend challenged me with the first step: Listen without thinking about what you are going to say next. Additionally, start building an “eco-system” that maintains a balance between communication and silence. You might be saying, “What! That’s impossible,” but if you take time to do it your conversations will be transformed, and like my mentor, you, too, will be tagged with the title of “great conversationalist.”
Christopher Kerzich is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Chicago and a contributor to the Word on Fire blog.