Silence Is Golden

or, Miracle at St Bede’s

Father Malachy had a problem and it was getting worse. A small example: Mrs. Garvey’s rosary. This pious old lady made more noise praying with her shiny glass beads than Marley’s Ghost rattling his iron chains. Diligent searches online discovered a rosary with plastic beads but they turned out to be even noisier and a modish item made from the seeds of plants was expensive and just as clicky. Nobody seemed to manufacture rubber rosaries.

Then there was her husband’s collapsible walking stick. It was an National Health Service product made of metal which clicked at the hinges, loudly announcing Mr. Garvey’s arrival for Mass and his progress down the aisle, click, click, click, click. Father Malachy had offered the fine, polished blackthorn left behind the presbytery door when his predecessor, Father Patrick, went to his reward, but Mr. Garvey was having none of it. His was an official walking stick, the only thing he ever got from the government, and it was collapsible. Father Malachy struggled to understand the virtue of a walking stick’s collapsibililty but Mr. G stood firm. Heard together, the Garveys sounded like a syncopated version of Dem Bones, Dem Bones, Dem Dry Bones—not inappropriate in a church, he supposed, since the words came straight from the Prophet Ezekiel!

Of course, the rosary and the walking stick were just two aspects of his problem, which was the volume of noise in St. Bede’s every Sunday. Ladies, in loud whispers, discussed each other’s health crises, kids squirmed and whinged and demanded a toilet visit every two minutes, infants cried and wailed, and—something new—a lot of people slurped regularly from plastic water bottles. Many of Father Malachy’s elderly congregation wore hearing aids which frequently emitted piercing whistles, something the owners, being deaf, never seemed to notice. Kieran the drug addict stumbled around the back of the church looking for handouts and Tommy the drunk dozed and belched, mostly belched. The Dempseys, martyrs to hay fever, sneezed in rotation, Ed with a spit-spraying roar, Gertie with a refined tsk-tsk. Finally, there was Sister Anastasia and the seemingly inexhaustible repertoire of hymns from her acoustic guitar: Hail this, holy that, hallelujah the other, for ever and ever, amen!

Father Malachy scolded himself for his uncharitable thoughts. God bless them, they were his flock and in truth he loved every one. It was just that as he got older, the noise got noisier and his reactions jumpier. And anyway, weren’t churches supposed to be places of quiet devotion? Had silence become an enemy in the modern world, a sin even? Whatever happened to meditation and contemplation, those twin foundations of the Church’s spirituality? “What I need,” he murmured despairingly, “is a miracle.” And that is when he had his brainwave.

Hurrying to his cluttered study, Malachy reached to the top shelf and brought down a book he had not opened since his days in the seminary. The title, in faded gold lettering, was just about visible: Patron Saints of the One True Church. He slapped the book against his thigh to remove the dust, then, excited as he had not been for a long time, he began to turn the yellowed pages.

The holy ones were divided into categories: patron saints of occupations, patron saints of places, and patron saints of those ailing or in danger. There was Abhat, protector against poisonous reptiles, Apollonia, Agathius, and Agricola specialists against, respectively, toothache, headache, and the Bubonic plague, plus Albinus in the event of a pirate attack. Benedict looked out for farmers, Benno for fishermen, Bernard for bee keepers and Bona for—Father Malachy had to check the entry twice—Bona for flight attendants. Saint Joseph ruled over Canada, Francis Xavier patronized China, George starred for England (plus plenty other places), and Barnabas was Cyprus’ hero saint.

There were hundreds and hundreds of them; holy men and women, theologians and martyrs, doctors, bishops, and virgins, page after page, and Father Malachy began to despair that he would ever find the miracle worker he needed. He spotted Saint Quentin for those afflicted with coughs, sneezes, and dropsy and wondered if he should pass the name on to the Dempseys. St. Bede’s young mums might be interested in Saint Colette, patron of pregnant mothers, and a certain Brother Andre of Canada hosted arrays of discarded crutches and walking sticks at his shrine in Montreal—one for Mr. Garvey perhaps?

Many of the books’ entries were supported by miniature line drawings with halos, tonsures, and uplifted eyes in abundance, and it was just as he was about to close the book in disappointment that one of these portraits caught the priest’s attention. Bringing the page close for a better view, he found he was staring at a monk holding his forefinger to his lips in a way that clearly said, “Shush!” The caption named him John the Silent. Malachy’s heart thumped as he read on: “John the Silent (454-558) was a saint from Nicopolis, Armenia, who was famous for living alone for seventy-six years. He stayed in his cell, speaking to no-one except the person who brought him necessities. He was given his surname because he loved recollection and silence.”

Malachy’s “Hallelujahs” rent the air. “Recollection and silence! He’s our man. He’s our miracle worker, good old John the Silent.” Even better, John’s feast day was the very next Sunday, May 13. John did not seem to be a patron of any place or person or a protector from any disease but Father Malachy didn’t care. A miracle, he was certain, was about to take place.

John the Silent’s name was not mentioned in the rubrics for May 13—it was the sixth Sunday after Easter—though Malachy couldn’t help noticing that St. Pancras’ feast was highlighted for the day before, and what had Pancras ever done but give his name to a railway station! Dutifully turning such irreverent thoughts aside, Malachy, one half-hour before the 11 am Sunday Mass, sank to his knees and addressed himself seriously to John the Silent: “Saint John,” he said, “I admit I have never prayed to you before, but that was only because I never knew you existed. Today I am seriously in need of your assistance and since it is your feast day, and knowing that you are close to God and aware of your predilection for silence, I address to you my intercessory prayer.” The priest then mentally outlined St. Bede’s problem of noise, constant noise, noise reaching Boeing take-off proportions, to the point that he was now actively listening out for interruptions rather than addressing himself to his prayers. “John the Silent,” he pleaded, “henceforth during Sunday Mass let silence, holy silence, ring in my ears.”

Struggling to his feet—the weakening of his muscles was keeping time with the greying of his hair—Malachy made his way to the vestry to robe for Mass. He noticed that unwittingly he had crossed his fingers, which made him feel briefly uneasy because he knew crossing the fingers originated in pre-Christian times. But it also referenced Christ’s cross, did it not, and, no disrespect to John the Silent, every little bit helped.

As a straggly procession of altar boys and girls formed up before him, Malachy sneaked a look into the body of the church. It was as ever: Elderly ladies snatching a last chance to gossip, boys fighting to be at the end of the pew, at least two babies crying, and of course the Garveys clicking and the Dempseys sneezing. He sighed, offered up one last prayer to Silent John, then told the tallest altar server, the one carrying the cross, “Okay, Tommy, let’s go.” It was while processing from the vestry into the church to the tune of “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending” on Sister Anastasia’s guitar, that something amazing happened. The sneezing, coughing, crying, and whispering disappeared, even the music of the hymn, and a dense, holy, beautiful silence rang in Father Malachy’s ears.

The next three Sundays found St. Bede’s pastor in seventh heaven. His sermons were being preached in absolute silence and for the first time he actually began tuning into his own words. This prompted him to write them out carefully beforehand, something he hadn’t done for years. Try as he might, he heard no rosary or cane clicks, no coughs, sneezes, belches, wails, sniggers, or snippets of gossip. If doors banged they made no sound, and when a pile of hymn books toppled over, he felt only a waft of displaced air. This is the way it’s supposed to be, Malachy thought, this is performing the sacerdotal role of care and leadership for which I was ordained. Thank you, John the Silent.

When a message came asking him to call on the bishop the following day without fail, Malachy looked forward to explaining the new dispensation at St. Bede’s, the way silence and respect now reigned. He might even suggest a diocesan-wide novena in honor of Silent John, whose existence he guessed was as unknown to the bishop as it had been to him. But when Malachy entered Bishop Benedict’s study the frowning face atop the red-buttoned cassock held him back. There were no niceties. “Malachy, we’ve known each other too long to beat about the bush,” the bishop started. “Now tell me, what the hell is going on at St. Bede’s?”

When Malachy began to explain how he had solved the noise problem and brought peace to his little community by recourse to John the Silent, Benedict exploded. “Silence? That’s not what I hear. What I hear is that your Sunday Masses are totally out of control, that the congregation is acting like they’re at a circus, while you, Malachy, ignore the chaos and sublimely preach longer and longer sermons as if you were Saint Paul himself.”

Malachy was stunned. “They act. . .”

“. . . as if a circus is in town. That’s what I am told. What’s more, some local householders— there’s always somebody ready to have a go at us—are threatening to apply to the council for a noise abatement order.”

“But My Lord,” said Malachy, “I prayed. . . John the Silent. . .”

“Never mind your John the Silent, forget John the Silent, whoever he may be. What I want to see is Malachy the Miracle Worker. All right, St. Bede’s is not a Trappist monastery and there’s nothing wrong with a bit of whispered chit-chat, but it’s not a football stadium either. Get a grip, Malachy. Fix it.”

A church like a circus. . . Malachy repeated dumbly as he trudged home. . . . Out of control. . . a noise abatement order. . . . What on earth had happened? What had his new friend done? Back in his study, Malachy opened the book to John’s entry and prayed urgently. “John, what went wrong? I asked you to stop the noise but the bishop says the noise got worse.” Of course, Silent John stayed faithful to his reputation and gave no reply, but somehow that impelled Malachy to go back over his intercession. His actual words were: “Let silence, holy silence, ring in my ears.” Malachy put the book down. So that was it, a technical hitch, a semantic error. Silent John had given him silence all right, personal silence, effectively making him deaf, but the faithful were as noisy as ever, he just couldn’t hear them.

Humbled, Malachy strove for redress. “Good Saint John, I’m afraid there has been a slight misunderstanding. I know I asked that silence should ring in my ears but that was just a manner of speaking. It was the people’s buzz I wanted you to quell.” Malachy wondered about asking Silent John to reopen his ears, but he knew that would not happen. John was in the business of bringing silence not removing it.

At Mass the following Sunday, with Malachy in a state of troubled indecision, he noticed a man in a yellow high-visibility jacket standing at the back of the church and operating some sort of gadget. The priest did not know much about technology, but he was shrewd enough to guess that this was some kind of decibel counter and the hi-vis man was an employee of his hostile neighbors. Now he knew there was just one last recourse, an avenue he had long evaded.

Jude, the Patron Saint of Hopeless Cases, was one of the most popular figures in the whole Communion of Saints because everybody had an impossible problem and the thought that there existed somebody out there who might solve that problem was a powerful attraction. Malachy, alas, had a few “priors” when it came to Jude. None of his hopeless cases had ever been resolved, not a single one: His boyhood desire to play football for Ireland, his youthful wish that Mary Byrne would love him, or at least notice him, and later, his priestly preference to serve God in foreign lands (well, strictly speaking that was granted but he had not meant England when he said foreign lands). It was a discouraging record, but these were desperate times and demanded desperate measures, so Jude it must be.

As he did with Silent John, Malachy fell to his knees before Sunday’s Mass and prayed: “Jude, holy Jude, my friend Jude, beloved Jude, please disregard any hostility you may have detected within me in regard to my petitions of the past. I am sure you had good reason to act, or not to act, as you did. But this, Jude, is a crisis. I need a miracle.” Malachy presumed that as a saint in heaven with access to all knowledge, Jude would be well aware of his predicament, but he recounted it in full, just in case. Then he confessed, “Holy Jude, I probably went overboard about the noise. People are social creatures, they need to interact, and my flock are good folk who bother to get out of their warm beds every Sunday to tell God they love him.” He concluded, “Jude, I am now an old man, I was arrogant and self-centered, I beg that the Sunday deafness be removed from my ears and St. Bede’s be returned to the way it was.”

Many parishioners of St. Bede’s later recalled how Father Malachy, processing into church that day behind the cross, seemed suddenly to light up with joy as Sister Anastasia launched into “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending,” how he reached out with warmth to the Dempseys and the Garveys and smiled broadly at a mum with a squalling baby. They remembered that the congregation listened attentively to his very short sermon, and if they were observant, which mostly they weren’t, they might also have noticed that the man in the hi-vis jacket left early and was never seen again.

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