Two weeks ago, our church held a Quiet Day—a day of silence, reflection, and mini-sermons in preparation for Holy Week. On the schedule was a silent Mass, which replaces the verbose (and beautiful) Episcopal liturgy with simple movements and gestures. In keeping with that, the facilitator’s first talk dealt with words: how they feed us, how they get in the way.

His ideas opened some new insights during our first period of silence. Two basic categories of words emerged in my mind: words that clutter and words that penetrate.

We’re all familiar with the first kind. These words fill our world: they entertain us, they convey our culture, they help us get by, but—like the mediocre actor whose presence remains onstage as we sit passively in the audience—they do nothing to connect with us or feed our souls. They inhabit our TV programs and our ads, our celebrity gossip magazines, the sound bites of our pundits and the posturing of our elected officials. They just keep coming at us.

The second kind leaps off the stage and approaches us face to face. They are well-chosen words, uttered with thought and reflection. They include the maxims and truths that cut right to our hearts and reveal a slice of truth. When I think of this category, my favorite words from St. Thérèse of Lisieux come to mind: “Jesus does not demand great things of us, but only surrender and gratitude.” They are the words we live by. They transform us.

This second kind is what we need in dialogue. The words that shed new light on old wounds and culture wars. The words that help us connect with people we may have considered our enemies.

But the more I reflected on all these words, the more it dawned on me that they’re not enough. Silence has a role to play, and it is indispensable. To understand why, realize that the cluttering words have done their work: they form a web of chatter that—together with the kids’ schedules and the work deadlines and whatever else—fills our mind. The sheer volume of words seems like wallpaper: adding texture to the background, but undifferentiated one from another. The truly important gets lost in the shuffle.

By enshrouding our dialogues with silence, we clear out all that mental clutter. As a result, each word from our dialogue partner comes through more clearly. We’re better able to consider it undisturbed by our automatic responses and preconceived biases. And when we let silence intersperse itself throughout our dialogue, it gives us time and space to more fully weigh each word, whether it might have merit, and how it might affect our own thinking.

Silence and penetrating words don’t come naturally in our culture. It requires deliberate effort to foster them, bring them to fruition in our lives, and let them transform our dialogues. But they are like any practice: the more you practice it, the better you get—and, even better, the more you come to cherish it. It’s a big step toward becoming a person of dialogue.

P.S.: One place to see this dynamic in action is the Clearness Committee. We’ll look at this in a future post.