This past Sunday I tried something new in my parish. After the sermon, and before we continued on to the other portions of the liturgy, we stopped. As a body of Christ, together, we sat in an extended period of silence, listening for the voice of God in our midst.
I won’t lie, I was nervous about this. We had never tried an extended period of silence before. In the end, the congregation held the state of silent listening for over 3 minutes. That may not seem like a great length of time, but in a world in which we are constantly surrounded by a plethora of sounds, neither did the silence rush by. In the end, many came to me saying ‘I heard God speak!’ or ‘God showed me a picture!’
Many found this silence powerful precisely because it is so foreign today. We have grown so accustomed to the sounds that encompass our lives; the blaring of the stereo, the ceaseless advertisements, the jingles that surround all of public life. Often these exist for the sole purpose of taking up acoustic space. They offer little comfort or refreshment as they continually call our attention away from an internal connection with God. The beeps and chirps of modern life continually call us to focus on something something else. Here there can be no restedness, no peace, no rootedness. As long as the direction of our soul’s activity and focus is upon the frantic otherness of the life around us, we will always struggle to catch even the smallest glimpse of God’s presence in our lives.
Isn’t our reluctance to remain steadfast in prayer; our inability to distinguish God’s voice apart from the voices of the world, and the feeling of skimming over the deep things of faith all rooted in our inability to remain silent? Yet silence is that to which we are continually called. The prophet Isaiah beckons us with the words ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength (Isaiah 30:15). In fact, the entire earth is called to ‘keep silence’ before The Lord in his holy temple (Habakkuk 2:20). Jesus invites the disciples to ‘a quiet place’ time and time again (Mark 6:31). We cut ourselves off from a tremendous source of spiritual livelihood when we fail to adequately cultivate silence as a regular discipline of the life of faith.
The early church had a saying:
Cultivate silence and it will teach you everything.
In silence we take the position of humility before God. We choose to refrain from filling up the space with our own noises, or our own thoughts, and we humbly wait upon the Spirit’s activity. Silence involves the closing off of ourselves to that which whirls around us, and within us, for the noise of life doesn’t just occur from the outside. We still the inner chatter. We open ourselves to God’s presence and attempt, as best we can, to remain attentive to His words. Silence is a passive place. It is not defined by our activity or our striving. In silence we wait. We listen. We abide. We long for God to speak, to act, to move, and only then do we respond to the rhythms of God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote: “Silence is the simple stillness of the individual under the Word of God. We are silent before hearing the Word because our thoughts are already directed to the Word, as a child is quiet when he enters his Father’s room. We are silent after hearing the Word because the word is still speaking and dwelling within us. . . . .Real silence, real stillness, really holding one’s tongue comes only as the sober consequence of spiritual stillness.” (Life together, page 79).
Cultivating silence can be as simple as finding 5 minutes during the day to sit it quietness and turn our attention to our Lord. Find a quiet place where you can remain undisturbed. To the best of your ability, remove all distractions of sight and sound from the atmosphere. Simply sit, with no agenda, with no notions of what will occur. Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to judge, slow to define. Simply ask God to be fill the quiet space, and expect that in God’s own way, God will do so. After the 5 minutes are completed rise and continue on in the day, yet attempt to hold that inner quietness, cultivated in the space of external quietness.
In such a fast-paced world we need times where we stop and be still, and in such a noisy world we need times where we are silent. Yes, silence can be uncomfortable, but then again, so too are all places in which we draw close to our Lord. It is as we push through the initial discomfort of silence that we find ourselves entering that silence that is defined, not by the absence of noise, but by the thick and mighty presence of God.