The first thing you notice is the smell. Like wet leaves on a forest floor. It’s damp and cool and the only light comes from the string of weak electric bulbs strung along the passageway. Because we had arranged a private tour, we were able to linger here in the catacombs beneath the streets of Rome. Our tour guide, a young nun, led us into tunnels and rooms not often seen by the public. She pointed out frescoes showing Jesus, the Apostles, and some of the earliest Saints of the Church. I especially liked the graffiti left by these hidden Christians who used the catacombs as both burial tombs and worship spaces. Most of the scratched words are prayers for a loved one who has died. Some were just names or single words. A few frescoes showed people in prayer and receiving Holy Communion. Here in this musty and dark place, hidden from pagan eyes, our ancestors in faith celebrated Mass, went to confession, were baptized and married, anointed and laid to rest. For many of them, their Christian faith was a death sentence and so these dark, quiet tunnels were a safe place to proclaim Christ, to come together as a family of faith. It’s a sacred place.  

Sitting there I remembered where we’d been just the week before. That place, too was heavy with history and memory. Ten miles outside Munich is Dachau, the first of the Nazi death camps. Low brick buildings, gravel walkways and that hateful iron sign at the entrance, “Arbeit Macht Frei”(Work make you free). The work of Dachau was hate and the freedom found there came on April 29, 1945 when American troops arrived and liberated the prisoners who were still alive there. Almost 32,000 died at Dachau in the 12 years it existed. Most were Jews, but many others were political prisoners, Catholic priests, immigrants, gays and the disabled. The Nazis carried out horrible “experiments” on prisoners here. It’s like walking through an abandoned corner of hell. But here, too are glimpses of the souls who had lived here. A small Star of David scratched into a barracks wall. A tiny brown shoe in a pile of hundreds of adult shoes. The name “Helga” in the collar of a prison shift. So much loss. The quiet here cries out for justice. This place, too, is sacred. 

Places like these peel away everything that isn’t eternal. They aren’t easy places to experience, but “easy” and “eternal” are rarely the same thing. Like the catacombs, a death camp forces you to answer the big questions: What do you believe? What is true? What are you willing to die for? These timeless questions require silence in order to be heard. You can’t hear eternity in a world full of noise. Jesus knew that. He retreated to quiet places in order to pray and hear the voice of the Father. Our daily lives are crammed with noise and distraction. We become starved for spiritual nourishment. Even many of our own worship experiences are filled with noise and light shows. We can’t tolerate silence. Yet God speaks to us in our quietude, not the in the earthquake, nor the fire, nor the mighty wind, but in a gentle whisper (I Kings 19:2). A whisper that speaks to us of the faith of our ancestors in the catacombs who risked their lives for their love of Christ. A whisper that speaks to us of justice and our calling to love and serve others in a world broken by sin and hate.  

These days in the streets of Rome and Munich, Calais and Paris, thousands of people have come seeking a better life. They have left their homes and loved ones and risked everything out of hope. What will be our response to them? We ourselves know what persecution and hate can do. We’ve seen that already in our history. Before we protest, before we build fences and pass laws, let’s go to a quiet place and listen for that whisper of God. Our hearts will never find peace in the noise of politics and rhetoric, of CNN and Fox News, or in partisan debates. As Christians, we follow the One Who is before all things and in Whom all things hold together (Colossians 1:17). He and He alone can lead us to the answer, if we only sit quietly and ask Him.

“Silence makes us whole if we let it. Silence helps draw together the scattered and dissipated energies of a fragmented existence.” —–Thomas Merton

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