By Jorge Zetino SVD
The words die Stille, das Schweigen, die Ruhe, das Stillschweigen, die Schweigsamkeit are nouns used in the German language to translate one single English word: Silence. The only other translation I knew of this word was in my native Spanish, “el silencio.”
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, silence can be defined as (1) forbearance from speech or noise—muteness, (2) an absence of sound or noise—stillness, and (3) absence of mention—oblivion, obscurity, secrecy.
I had never given so much thought to a single word before—regardless of the language. Until a couple of years ago, to me, “silence” was either just a word used to describe the absence of noise, refraining from speaking (keeping silent), or the title of a very long movie directed by Martin Scorsese. Scorsese’s 2016 film adaptation of the novel with the same name by Shūsaku Endō depicts the story of Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in 17th century and Japan’s persecution of that country’s Christian community.
The meaning and my relation to this word changed in 2018. After arriving in Germany for my Overseas Training Program (OTP) as a young Divine Word Missionary in formation, silence went from being a concept, an idea, or the title of long movie to a lived reality.
Like the Jesuit missionaries in Endō’s 1966 novel, I too arrived in a foreign land, 4,245 miles from my home country to be exact, as a young Catholic missionary with no prior knowledge of the language, culture or traditions of my host country.
The first year of any OTP, or Cross-Cultural Training Program (CTP), is known among Divine Word Missionaries as the “silent year.” Silent because one likely does not know the local language before arrival. Silent because even after beginning with the cultural immersion and language courses, one is not fully fluent in the language and not be able to express one’s thoughts and ideas on any giving matter. Silent because one likely does not have family or trusted friends or confreres with whom one can openly and safely share the roller coaster of emotions experienced in the new environment.
We have a lot to say and ask but lack the vocabulary. We have a lot to share but lack a physical shoulder to lean on. The support of our friends and family is there, just one phone call away. However, after we hang up, we find ourselves all alone to shed our tears in silence, in an unfamiliar land that has become our home—or so we hope.
Before departing for my OTP experience, many SVD confreres warned me about the silent year. “When everything you know is taken away from you—language, culture, family and friends—you are left with nothing,” said an SVD confrere. “All you have is you, God, and all the silence and solitude of the first few months.”
During my first few months, many of my friends encouraged me not to be afraid of the silence but to embrace it and use it to my benefit. They encouraged me not to get frustrated for not being able to communicate what I thought and believed in full German sentences. “That will come later,” one said. Instead, “Use this time to listen, to listen to God and to listen to yourself,” another confrere said.
I followed the advice and tried to embrace this “silent year,” to take advantage of the opportunity given to me, not just to struggle with learning a new language and adapting to a different way of life, but also to look inward, to turn my attention within and learn to listen to God’s desires for me. Mother Teresa once said that “in the silence of the heart God speaks.”
It was not easy to appreciate the silence that the first months of this experience had to offer. There were days in which I struggled with it. But in those days in which such silence felt unbearable I was reminded of David Haas’s beautiful hymn “You Are Mine,” which says:
I will come to you in the silence
I will lift you from all your fear
You will hear My Voice
I claim you as My choice
Be still, and know I am near
I’ve learned that silence is not only the title of Hollywood film or the title of a long novel; it is, among other things, a venue in which I can learn to listen to the desires of my heart, and equally important, listen to the voice of God within and around me.