I was walking in silence along the rocky shore of Lake Superior with seven other men when we stopped, hugged one of our brothers, and watched as he disappeared into the woods alone. We continued for another two hundred yards or so and stopped again. Hugs were exchanged. Good luck was wished, and we watched another pick his way through the brush before moving on. We repeated the ritual three more times before it was my turn. I climbed over a fallen tree and pushed past some brush before I found a decent clearing and started making camp. I built some walls to protect me from the wind and fashioned a roof using shoelaces and a “solo poncho.” This is how I began three days alone in the woods in solitude and silence.
Those three days on the shore of Lake Superior were the pinnacle of a trip that was the centerpiece of the most formational season in my life. For three weeks I hiked and canoed across the Upper Peninsula with a group of people I would live with for a semester. In that community, I learned how to learn. I learned that God is present in the little things, and every experience is a fertile opportunity for him to form us into the people he created us to be.
I love spending extended times in the woods. In the wilderness, we are stripped of our masks. Everything we strive to produce and the image of ourselves that we work so hard to present to the world falls away. The wilderness is an antidote for the false self.
We cannot all retreat to the woods, but in a noisy world some form of retreat is necessary for us all. For God to shape us into the people he created us to be, we need to be attentive to His presence. We need to be able to hear and recognize His voice, and it is just too difficult to cultivate an awareness of His presence in such a noisy world without intentional time away from distractions.
Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” But when there are hundreds of others voices shouting for our attention, how can we hear him? This is why the discipline of silence has such an important place in our lives. Dallas Willard wrote, “Far from being a mere absence, silence allows the reality of God to stand in the midst of your life. God does not ordinarily compete for our attention. In silence we come to attend.”
Silence is a way of building a rhythm of wilderness into our lives. When we retreat from the noise that competes for our attention and focus on nothing but the presence of God, we learn the voice of the Good Shepherd. And learning to recognize His voice cultivates a deeper awareness of His constant presence.
Why is silence important?
In 2011 the world health organization studied the impact of extreme noise on our health and noticed a correlation between high blood pressure and living near noisy environments like airports and highways. They concluded extreme noise was a contributing factor in 3,000 heart disease deaths in Western Europe that year. Additional studies have shown chronic noise has a negative impact on a child’s cognitive and language development.
These studies show there is a physiological benefit to silence, but what about the spiritual? Spiritual leaders seem to unanimously extol the virtues of silence. Willard wrote that people would tell him they didn’t have time for silence and solitude, and he would respond, “The truth is you don’t have time not to practice solitude and silence.” Thomas Merton wrote anyone who does not make time for silence will find life “miserable and exhausting.” And Henri Nouwen wrote, “Without silence it is virtually impossible to grow spiritually.”
Why is this? Why do so many great teachers of the faith teach the necessity of silence? There are at least two reasons. Silence is a holy disruption to an unintentional life, and the discipline of silence removes the barriers to being attentive to God’s presence.
Think about your day. How many spaces of real silence are there? In a typical day I am stirred awake by an alarm on my phone. I have a few minutes of silence while I get dressed (only because I leave before my sons are awake). Then I listen to the radio as I drive, a podcast when I work out, and music as I write. There is a constant bustle at work, and the radio is on again as I drive home. I walk into a house exploding with the sounds of two young boys, and when they are finally in bed, my wife and I sit down to the noise of the television. From climbing out of bed to climbing back in, I am lucky to have fifteen minutes of actual silence.
One study showed we hear up to 100,000 words in a normal day. Other studies suggest each day we are exposed to between 3,000 and 5,000 advertisements. We seem intent on filling every pocket of potential silence with noise and distraction. Our world is so noisy, in fact, that when we do encounter silence it is shocking, and this is only the external noise.
How noisy are our inner lives? How noisy is yours? Do your thoughts lead to greater peace or greater busyness? Do they revolve around fear or worry and lead you to grasp for more control? Are you constantly measuring yourself against the look and achievements of others? Do you dwell on ways you have been slighted or how others perceive you? Are your thoughts centered on reaching for greater power or prestige? For many of us, our internal reality is just as noisy and distracting as the external.
In her book on silence and solitude, Ruth Haley Barton tells a story comparing our lives to a shaken up jar of river water. We need to be quiet long enough to allow the sediment to settle and bring clarity to the water. The discipline of silence quiets both the external and internal noise. Silence is not just about eliminating external noise. As good as that is, the discipline of silence also focuses on quieting our inner noise.
Silence as a discipline is simple in concept but difficult in its execution. When we practice this discipline we quiet the noise in and around us, and we focus on just one thing, the presence of God.
God is always present. Psalm 139:7-8 says, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.” We don’t need to ask God to be present or work to enter His presence. Our task is attending, cultivating an awareness of His presence.
When we set aside time to practice the discipline of silence we are cultivating an awareness of His presence. In times of silence our ability to tend to God’s presence takes root. As the roots grow deep, we develop a greater and greater awareness of His presence even in the noise of everyday life.
When we practice the discipline of silence we literally do nothing. All of our attention and energy is focused on staying aware of God’s presence. We retreat from the hustle and bustle and quiet our inner monologue to simply be with God.
In silence we put aside any assumptions and expectations of what will happen or what we will get out of the experience. Just rely on God. Trust in him. Be with him. Adele Calhoun says, “Silence is a time to rest in God. Lean into God, trusting that being with him in silence will loosen your rootedness in the world and plant you by streams of living water. It can form your life even if it doesn’t solve your life.”
Time set aside for silence is a wide-open invitation for God to do what he will. In silence we may find God has a word for us, or some direction, or he may be silent. It is God’s time. We don’t enter silence with an agenda. The discipline of silence is an exercise in trust and surrender. We trust God to deal with the tasks left behind and the worries and fears driving our inner noise as we retreat.
This can make the discipline difficult. Entering a time of doing nothing is terribly unfamiliar. We rarely do anything without thinking about what we will get from it, but there is only one agenda item in silence, attending to God. We don’t come expecting to receive something from God. We don’t bring questions or requests to him. We simply tend to His presence.
I have a couple friends who lead silent retreats, and I appreciate how they set up time in silence. They say there are only two things we know about our time in silence. We know God will show up, and in some way he will tell us he loves us.
How to practice silence
Because our culture is obsessed with noise, the discipline of silence requires us to be intentional. Dallas Willard pointed out no one finds time for silence. We need to make time for it.
When you carve out time to practice silence, consider a couple things. The first is the location. Where will you practice silence? You will want somewhere without distraction or the threat of being disturbed. This means being intentional about both the physical location and the place in time. Is there a time of your day best suited for silence?
Think about your posture. Find a comfortable position, one that will not become distracting after a period of time. Your posture should not only be physically comfortable but also spiritually comfortable. What position connects with how you are feeling toward God right now? Do you want to sit or stand? Hold your hands open or folded? For example, I have found walking, especially in nature, to be helpful.
When you have made space for external silence, it is time to move into the challenging aspect of this discipline, inner silence. Pay attention to what is going on internally before you begin. Are your thoughts consumed with things going on in your life? Are you afraid of silence, worried that God won’t show up or how he will respond to you? Do you have an agenda, some direction or word you are quietly hoping God to give you?
Say a short prayer and release these to him. Remember that silence is a discipline of trust and surrender. It is God’s time. He may speak to our fears. He may have a particular word of comfort or direction, but that is up to God. Remember, silence is God’s time.
Finally, you may find it helpful to use the discipline of centering prayer in silence. This means choosing a word or short phrase to call you back to attending. This simple prayer is used when you find the inner noise rising up.
As you find your attention shifting away from God, repeat the word or phase you have chosen to come back to God’s presence. You may choose something like “peace,” “only you,” or “be still.” It is not a mantra or a breath prayer that you repeat continually. But it is helpful to draw us away from the distractions to be attentive to God.
Silence is hard
Silence is hard. In our world where we are so accustomed to noise, it can be incredibly difficult to be silent. To be honest, there is no magic trick to make it easier. It simply takes practice. The more time you make for silence and the more consistently you practice it, the easier it will become. Like almost anything worth doing, it takes practice to develop. So don’t expect to begin this discipline with thirty minutes of silence. Begin with ten or even five minutes. Give yourself time to build up your silence muscles
For me, quieting the inner noise is the most difficult part of silence. As soon as I get into a quiet room, my fears and worries start muttering from the corner. My tasks and responsibilities shout for attention from the door. Doubts and questions whisper seductively in my ear. Quieting this noise takes effort, practice, and trust.
Silence isn’t just hard. It can be scary. But the things that make silence scary are the very reasons we need it. We have so many crutches, so many things we strive for and cling to in an attempt to present an image of ourselves to the world. We want people to think we are smart, funny, important, strong, a good parent, and so on. We want people to think we are valuable, and we attempt to do this by showing a false self to the world. When we come to silence, we release these images and rest honestly in the presence of God.
It can be scary to let go of our false selves, but simply being in God’s presence can be equally scary. In addition to the idols we use to prop up our false selves, silence reveals what we think about God. If I spend time in His presence, will he show up? Can I trust him? Will he be angry with me? Is he good? Does he love me?
In silence we realize that we are completely dependent on God. This is risky. We have been hanging onto our idols for so long, we are not sure if we can trust God. If you find silence difficult for this reason, can I invite you to wrestle with the silence?
Why is it hard for you? Is there something you are afraid of? Is there something you don’t want to face? Is there something you are afraid of losing if you do not speak? Bring these to God. I don’t know how God will meet you, but I do know this. He is good, and he loves you.
Finally, don’t worry about doing silence “right.” There is a wonderful story about a nun attending a workshop led by Thomas Keating. Though story is about her experience with centering prayer, it applies to silence as well. After her first twenty minute time in centering prayer, she said to Father Keating, “Oh, Father Thomas, I’m such a failure at this prayer. In twenty minutes, I’ve had ten thousand thoughts.”
“How lovely!” he responded. “Ten thousand opportunities to return to God!”
Other resources about the discipline of silence
Invitation to Solitude and Silence by Ruth Haley Barton
“What is it? Solitude and Silence” a Transforming Center video
“Personal Soul Care” by Dallas Willard