Through various ministry opportunities over the years, I’ve found myself in a small and unassuming village in England called Walsingham. In the eyes of the world, it doesn’t have much to offer. It had been a major pilgrimage destination for centuries but has been largely forgotten until recently. It is affectionately known as “England’s Nazareth,” a place set apart to encounter God and meditate on the joy of the Annunciation and the hidden life of the Holy Family.
When you step foot there, you’re invited to slow down, to listen, and to reflect. Much like the Nazareth of Christ’s day, there’s an almost intentional slowness, a simplicity, and a quiet that makes your interior world enter into the same slowness, simplicity, and quiet.
The Pace of Nazareth
Here we are in the "Year of St. Joseph," and I’ve been reminded time and time again of the importance of Nazareth for him and for all men. Joseph had a unique call to purity—a purity that equipped him to protect and nurture his wife’s unique call to virginity. He was called to teach Christ how to be a man and what it looked like to make a sincere, humble, and life-giving gift of himself. The man who answered the call to this kind of mission needed a virtuous heart that could order all of his strength and power as a man toward the good of Mary and Jesus. He needed a simple and silent heart that helped him be aware and very present to what was going on inside of him. The pace of Nazareth helped Joseph stay at the pace he needed to answer God’s call.
Now, I’d venture to guess that most of us don’t live the pace of Nazareth. Your life might look something like this: you wake up and immediately grab your phone to scroll through Facebook and Instagram. After catching up with the social media world, you turn on the morning news while you get ready for your day. You hop in the car, turn on the radio on the way to work to hear yet another opinion about the day’s news. Sitting in the office, you press play on your favorite podcast as you answer emails and punch in the numbers.
While on your afternoon commute back home, you return a few phone calls. You return home and help with dinner prep, your kid’s homework, or you sneak in a workout fueled by your favorite workout music. After dinner, you catch up on your favorite shows while doing another thorough scroll through your social media accounts to make sure you didn’t miss anything. Finally, you head to bed, but not before flipping on the sound machine for some background noise to lull you to sleep before repeating the scenario all over again the next day.
Does this sound familiar? I would imagine that for many of us, it hits close to home. Is the fast pace and the rampant noise conducive to our mission of purity? Probably not. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI says:
"Technical progress… has made human life more comfortable but also more keyed up, at times even frenetic. Cities are almost always noisy, silence is rarely to be found in them because there is always background noise, in some areas even at night. In recent decades, moreover, the development of the media has spread and extended a phenomenon that had already been outlined in the 1960s: virtuality risks predominating over reality…The youngest, born into this condition, seem to want to fill every empty moment with music and images, out of fear of feeling this very emptiness. This is a trend that has always existed, especially among the young… but today it has reached a level such as to give rise to talk about anthropological mutation." (Homily, Liturgy of Vespers, 2011)
If you’re like me, this quote strikes a few chords. Could we really be doing extensive damage to our very humanity because of the amount of noise we are allowing into our lives? And, if so, how is all the noise and the pace of our lives preventing us from recognizing God’s call to purity and answering it?
Our Call as Followers of Christ
As Christians, we know that we have a trajectory and meaning. We have been made to be in relationship to God, and to be a gift to others. In fact, this truth has literally been stamped into the human body. The complementarity of the masculine and feminine forms speaks the truth of mutual belonging. Communion is written into us and all around us. Saint Pope John Paul II calls this “the spousal meaning of the body.” In his great treatise on the meaning of human sexuality, John Paul II states:
"After original sin, man and woman were to lose the grace of original innocence. The discovery of the spousal meaning of the body was to cease being for them a simple reality of revelation and grace. Yet, this meaning was to remain…inscribed in the depth of the human heart as a distant echo…of original innocence." (Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, 19:2)
Living on this side of the fall, it isn’t so easy to discern or embrace our call to be a gift. It isn’t so easy to recognize the closeness of our Creator, or the vast inherent dignity we possess being created in His image and likeness. If it isn’t easy to see it, it isn’t easy to live it. However, as John Paul II states, the calling is not lost to us. It is inscribed in the depths of our hearts. The echo is there. We, like Saint Joseph, just need to put ourselves in a place to discover the call and say yes to it. We need a new pace. To be well equipped to say yes to the call to purity and our mission to be a gift to others, we need the silence that Joseph had, the silence of Nazareth.
So, why are silence, pace, and purity so integrally connected? John Paul II sheds some more light on this for us. He tells us that if we are to master our sexual impulses and not let them master us, each man must be “like a watchman who watches over a hidden spring…[he] is called by Christ to reach a more mature and complete evaluation of his own heart” (Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, 48: 3-4).
Just as a watchman can’t function if he is distracted and unaware, we cannot be watchmen over our impulses if we live distracted and unaware. We need to slow down. We need silence. Again, we need a new pace—the pace of Nazareth in our lives. If we are able to cultivate a habit of being these watchmen, we can learn to more easily master our sexual desires and impulses and direct them rather than letting them direct us. Like Saint Joseph, we can begin to order all of our energy toward making a sincere gift of ourselves to the other.
Related: St. Joseph: A Model of Manhood and Fatherhood
Setting a New Pace in Your Life
So, how can we begin to cultivate this new pace?
Unplug more often.
We need to “detox” from the noise. When we unplug from our devices and the endless background noise of news, television, social media, etc, we can more easily plug into the movements of our hearts and discern the voice of God.
Be intentionally slow at times.
All too often, we make decisions without first examining ourselves and our circumstances. This takes time and necessitates moving at a better pace, a more human pace. As Pope Benedict referenced in the earlier quote, we are constantly moving at a pace that is frenetic so much so that It feels both inefficient and counter-productive to slow down. To be a watchman over our inner impulses, we must take the time to recognize those impulses, understand them, and then take the appropriate action. This is a principle taught by Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Be aware, understand, then take action. When I’m aware I am tempted, I can immediately slow down and pray, taking time to remember and understand what my desires are really about, then I can take action by reaching out to my accountability partner, heading out for some exercise, or initiating a call with a friend.
Discouragement is the enemy.
Becoming a watchman takes work, it takes practice. Like with anything that takes practice, you’re likely to fail or to make mistakes along the way. This is not the problem. The problem is when we become discouraged, especially at the beginning. We give up far too quickly when it becomes difficult or when we feel as if we are making little to no progress. From the outset, recognize that discouragement is going to be a big temptation for you, and reject it outright when it comes.
Consider attending a silent retreat.
I’ve heard many people make the excuse that they are “too extraverted” to enter into silence for a weekend or longer. I don’t buy that excuse. Silence is difficult, but let’s remember that silence is not just an absence of noise, it is a means of listening to a deeper voice.
Ask for help.
Ask for Saint Joseph’s help. If you aren’t sure how to enter into silence, or if you’re having a lot of trouble slowing down, then ask someone who has practiced it and practiced it well. Go to Joseph! The intercession of the Saints is very real, and let’s not forget to avail ourselves of this great Saint’s intercession.
Now picture what life could be like at a new pace: you wake up 20 minutes early and leave the phone where it is. You grab your cup of coffee, and in the silence of your home, before anyone else is awake, you offer your day to God asking him for the graces you need to be a good disciple. Throughout the day, you seek out moments to intentionally slow down and check in with God, and you successfully resist the temptation of an “unhealthy productivity.” You give your afternoon commute to him, spending that time in prayer as you head home, anchoring yourself in his love as you prepare to go home and love your family or housemates.
As you enter into the evening hours, perhaps the hours when temptation often comes, you’re aware and equipped to take appropriate action. As you lay down at night, you reflect in gratitude for the ways God has worked in your life, and you ask for the grace to be a better disciple, looking forward to the next day with more joy and more freedom. Doesn’t that sound more human? Doesn’t this sound like freedom? This is more like the pace we were created for—the pace of Nazareth.
St. Joseph, pray for us!