One Christmas in our priory in Newcastle, I lost my voice due to a virus which was going around at the time. Others had the same symptoms, feeling ill at first, then recovering, but for a while being unable to speak.
This was unfortunate for the other priest, Fr Colin, who had to do all the services that Christmas. For myself, despite feeling guilty about leaving such a burden on Fr Colin, it was a strangely pleasant experience.
It lasted a few days, this silence, but right through Christmas, and it came to me that I was experiencing in a small measure something that one of the forgotten characters of the Christmas story had endured. This was Zechariah, the priest and husband of Elizabeth, who had been struck dumb by the Angel Gabriel for his lack of faith.
I had always thought of this enforced silence as a punishment by Gabriel. Of course, in a sense it was, but I was now discovering that there was an element of blessing about it too.
Unable to speak, and taking no part in conversations, I was able to concentrate on the simple art of seeing. Christmas is very much a time for vision. It's a story about things seen, a star in the sky, a baby in a cattle trough, angels singing and strange men from the East.
There is an instinct which has led us, after a few false starts, to celebrate Christmas against a background of winter darkness, when we are more conscious of light, precisely because the little that we have has become more precious to us.
There was something else that my silence taught me. This was the meaning of the curious English phrase 'a pregnant silence'. What is pregnant about silence, or what is silent about pregnancy?
To understand the connection between these two words, we have to see that a pregnant silence is the sort of silence that comes before speech, a silence that is as powerful as the calm before a storm. Out of the silence comes speech, as out of the slow hidden thing that is pregnancy there awakes a new life.
Zechariah felt this, the gathering power which was to emerge with the birth of John the Baptist. Through the silence that was more a gift of the angel than a curse, he learned to detect the deep meanings of ordinary things. When the time came, he would speak again, in the Benedictus, the great prayer to which the church throughout the world wakens every morning.
Yet there was a greater silence than that of Zechariah, a silence not imposed from without, as his was, but which came from within. This was the silence of Mary.
Mary is very often a silent presence in the Gospels. When she does speak, we are conscious of the great and powerful quietude from which her words come. It is the silence of the one who pondered in her heart the things she saw and heard. It is into the heart of that silence that the angel Gabriel spoke.
He had no need to silence her, to teach her the meaning of things. She was the greatest of all contemplatives, so great that in the rosary, the Church still meditates on the meaning of Jesus through her eyes, or rather through her silent, listening heart. She ponders the words of the angel, words that speak of the triumph of her Son, rather than of the terrible path which will lead to that victory.
It is because she has truly heard the words of the angel, that she too will walk that path, without doubt and with no despair. When she does speak, it is with the words of the Magnificat, words which reach out beyond her earthly life, through the cross and resurrection, through all the future, to the end of time when God will be all in all.
If we wish to speak with even a vague echo of such power, we must learn to be silent, to prepare for speech, to be like Paul when Christ appeared to him in Corinth (Acts 18:9), saying
Do not be afraid, speak and do not be silent