St. Joseph’s Eloquent Silence

Created: Mar 21, 2024
Category: General News

The protector of the Holy Family teaches us how to listen to God’s voice and act decisively

By Father Boniface Hicks, OSB



“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). These well-known words of Mary, which we repeat daily in the Angelus, were Our Lady’s response to the annunciation by the archangel Gabriel. In contrast, Joseph’s response to the angelic annunciation was silent action (cf. Mt 1:24). Mary spoke; Joseph did. “And this first ‘doing’ became the beginning of ‘Joseph’s way,’” St. John Paul II wrote in his apostolic exhortation Redemptoris Custos (Guardian of the Redeemer). “The Gospels do not record any word ever spoken by Joseph along that way. But the silence of Joseph has its own special eloquence” (17).

What can we learn from “Joseph’s way,” particularly his silence, and how can we apply this to our own lives as Knights?

Silence takes many different forms, both positive and negative. Negative forms include the passive-aggressive “silent treatment” or other kinds of absence or neglect. Positive silence, however, can be described in five different movements embodied by St. Joseph — movements that mirror our interior participation in the Mass.

The silence of preparation. Joseph always kept his heart open, pure and receptive, making room for God’s “still small voice” to guide him (cf. 1 Kgs 19:12).

Keeping our hearts pure and receptive is not easy. It is a daily effort to pay attention to what is happening inside of us — not hypervigilance, but gentle, habitual self-awareness. “What am I thinking? What am I feeling? What is happening inside of me?” St. Peter admonishes us: “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith” (1 Pet 5:8-9a).

For Joseph, the stakes were very high. He was the guardian of the Immaculate Conception and the Incarnate Word. When they were in mortal danger, God informed Joseph and commanded him to take action (cf. Mt 2:13). It was essential for him to be watchful and sober so that he could hear the Lord and resist the devil.

The silence of listening. Listening to God and discerning his will are challenging for all of us, including St. Joseph. The best example of this was his epic struggle to make the best choice with Mary, his betrothed, when she was “found to be with child of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 1:18). Her unexpected pregnancy caused him great distress, much as Peter was overwhelmed by the Lord’s power by the Sea of Galilee and tried to excuse himself: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Lk 5:8).

For Mary “to be with child of the Holy Spirit” was not part of Joseph’s plan. On his own, he came to the best decision he could: He decided to release her in secret. He felt he needed to set her free and not interfere with whatever the Lord was doing in her. Fortunately, God did not leave Joseph on his own, but sent him help in the form of an angel — a spiritual director, you might say. We all need help to hear God’s voice, even a holy man like St. Joseph, and God wants to provide the guides — spiritual directors and spiritual friends — who can help us hear his voice more clearly.

The silence of self-offering. Joseph’s responses to God’s interventions were dramatic expressions of silent self-offering: Receiving Mary and her child, fleeing with them to Egypt, and then returning to Nazareth all required radical obedience. In his apostolic letter Patris Corde (With a Father’s Heart), Pope Francis described Joseph’s self-offering in terms of patience, entrustment and self-gift: “Joseph found happiness not in mere self-sacrifice but in self-gift. In him, we never see frustration but only trust. His patient silence was the prelude to concrete expressions of trust” (7).

To trust in God and the authorities he has placed in our lives can be hard for all of us. It was not easy for Joseph to wait for years in Egypt for God to tell him it was time to come home. Patience is hard, but as Pope Benedict XVI said in his inaugural homily: “The world is redeemed by the patience of God. It is destroyed by the impatience of man.”

The silence of contemplation. When we are moved by a profound love or struck by a great experience, we can be silenced by the beauty, truth or goodness of what we have encountered. Words would only cheapen the moment. Think of the love of a long-married couple — they sit together in silence, feeling deeply connected, without the need for words. Joseph cultivated this contemplative silence: “His silence is steeped in contemplation of the mystery of God in an attitude of total availability to the divine desires,” Pope Benedict said in a 2005 Angelus address. “In other words, Joseph’s silence does not express an inner emptiness but, on the contrary, the fullness of the faith he bears in his heart and which guides his every thought and action.”

We, in turn, should “allow ourselves to be ‘filled’ with St. Joseph’s silence,” Pope Benedict concluded. For St. Joseph can teach us to live in a constant loving awareness of Jesus — to live in “a silence woven of constant prayer.” With Joseph’s help, it is possible to keep this contemplative silence in our hearts at every moment, to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5:17).

We, in turn, should “allow ourselves to be ‘filled’ with St. Joseph’s silence.” For St. Joseph can teach us to live in a constant loving awareness of Jesus — to live in “a silence woven of constant prayer.”

The silence of savoring. Reflecting on St. Joseph and the Holy Family in a 2011 audience, Pope Benedict XVI later said, “We may imagine that he too, like his wife and in close harmony with her, lived the years of Jesus’ childhood and adolescence savoring, as it were, his presence in their family.” We are thus invited to learn from Joseph how to “savor” in silence. St. Joseph was lavished with the love of Mary and Jesus in their home in Nazareth. These wonders were so normal that no one else noticed them, but Joseph wouldn’t have missed them. He savored the love, the tenderness, the sensitivity of presence and the communion of persons that flourished under his roof. He gazed lovingly at the face of his sleeping little boy. He delighted in Jesus’ first creation in the family’s workshop. He rejoiced with the child as they visited the Temple. Joseph can teach us to savor in silence the daily, ordinary gifts of God.

He teaches us, as well, to receive the extraordinary gifts of God. Consider that before the liturgy and during the introductory rites of Mass, we make room to receive Christ by emptying ourselves of interior noise — the silence of preparation. We hold our hearts open in the silence of attentive listening during the Liturgy of the Word. As the gifts are prepared, we can make a silent self-offering, like St. Joseph did after he listened to the angel. Then there is a silence beyond words as bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ and we receive him into our own body. Finally, we rest in a silence of savoring as we pray our thanksgiving after holy Communion.

St. Joseph exemplifies each of these forms of silence — so much so that we might say he participated interiorly in an endless liturgy.

At the conclusion of Patris Corde, Pope Francis observed, “Jesus told us: ‘Learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart’ (Mt 11:29). The lives of the saints too are examples to be imitated. St. Paul explicitly says this: ‘Be imitators of me!’ (1 Cor 4:16). By his eloquent silence, St. Joseph says the same.”


FATHER BONIFACE HICKS, OSB, is director of spiritual formation and the Institute for Ministry Formation at Saint Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pa. A member of Saint Vincent College Council 14384, he is the author of Through the Heart of St. Joseph (2021) and The Hidden Power of Silence in the Mass: A Guide for Encountering Christ in the Liturgy (2024).