Practicing Silence, Part 2

Last week I wrote about practicing silence by limiting our words. If you gave it a try, what was it like for you? Whenever I engage in this sustaining practice the Lord often leads me to find a hidden fault or willful sin that still resides deep within me (Psalm 19:12-14). These things are usually revealed when I pause long enough to ask some questions. “What benefit do these words I want to say bring to the conversation? Why do I really want to add this line?” It is amazing how often I find that I want to speak the words or add the line to make myself

look better in someone’s eyes (vainglory) or to more effectively control an outcome (pride) or to do any of one hundred things that are more about my will than about God’s. When we take the time to consider why we communicate as we do, we open the way for us to examine our heart, which is the source of all those words (Luke 6:45).


If you want to see what is in a person’s heart just look through the windows provided by their words and actions. Listen and watch long enough and you begin to learn who they truly are at the core of their being (Study Proverbs 4:20-27 for more on the windows and the doors to the heart). There are two helpful ways to get a glimpse into your own heart. The first is to silence the tongue by saying only what is necessary and helpful (last week’s blog). The second is to create silence in your environment which clears the way for us to examine our hearts and opens the way to experience silence there as well.


We live in both an external and an internal world. Let’s be honest. Most people have never experienced complete silence. Externally we live in a world of whirring machines and soft buzzing lights. Internally we are filled with the noise of tasks, concerns and self-talk.  Silence is rare. Yet silence is necessary for spiritual growth. When there are no distractions around us or within us, that is when we truly begin to see what is going on in our hearts. Let me say the same thing a different way. The noise in us and around us blocks us from seeing the barriers that keep us from drawing near to God and near to others. But seeking silence is not easy. We fight against it because looking behind the curtain of our lives can be a frightening thing.


I have sought this three-way silence (tongue, environment and inner world) enough times that I can predict what will happen. For best results, I need at least three days in the country and away from people (we can talk about solitude another time). No matter when it is planned, it always starts the same way—with me fighting against it.


On the drive there I want to play the radio. I want to stream a podcast. I want to call someone just to talk. I want to do something other than just sit with my thoughts. When I arrive and get moved in, I want to pull out my books (which I didn’t bring) or my task list (which I left at home) or take a hike or….do anything that can distract me from what is happening in my heart! And then the fun begins. With my tongue and environment quieted, I begin to face the noisy stuff in me that I really would rather ignore.


It is here that I have to fight the temptation to quit and go home. Even though they sent me with joy, I feel guilty for leaving all the caregiving to Anne and for not doing something “pastoral” (this can’t be part of my job, can it?). Once the current concerns have been silenced, the old standards appear again as painful memories of my past failures parade through my mind, attacking my true identity in Christ and telling me how wrong I am.  


Anxieties, concerns, shame, guilt, lists of things we have yet to do, all these and many more make up the noise which floods our hearts, noise that distracts us from seeing our true need and God’s full supply. Removing the external distractions helps us recognize the internal distractions that we always carry—distractions that we may not even know about or may even try to hide. Look over that list in the first sentence of this paragraph and ask how each of these wounds either helps or hinders you from developing a deeper love for God or others. None of them help; they all hinder.


Usually, sometime after the 24 hour mark, something beautiful happens—the inner world stops screaming at me. One monk called this the moment when the monkeys in his banana trees stop their frenetic movement and ceaseless screeching. This is the moment when the silence of the tongue, environment an inner world combine to create a truly beautiful season of peace. It is a peace with God and a peace with myself. And it is a peace that lasts, impacting my relationship with others even after I get home.


It is no surprise that Christians through the ages—from the desert monks of the third century to people in the twenty-first century—write and speak of similar things happening to them. Silence tears down our masterfully constructed facades that even we have come to believe are real and forces us to face ourselves in the light of God’s justice and mercy. It is painful, but it is good. Thankfully you don’t need a week away in a secluded hermitage to practice this kind of silence.


Knowing that it is hard to get away for even a few hours, you may want to try this in your own home. If you live with others, find a moment when everyone is gone (or asleep). Turn off every appliance you can and enter an unhurried time of quiet prayer, reflective reading of scripture or meditation on an attribute of God. Become aware of your swinging monkeys. Give them a name and gently hand them over to God’s care. Try this for even ten minutes sometime and note what happens to your inner world.


Here is a truth that Jesus knew and practiced: When your inner world is silent, you can be at peace even when the world around you is in a storm. When Jesus went off to lonely places to pray He placed Himself within a silence we rarely experience. By doing and saying only what the Father wanted Him to do or say meant that He practiced silencing His tongue and based on His actions, I think it is clear that His heart was silent too. One look at His selfless, others-centered actions from the cross reveal that His inner world was not in turmoil.


Silence is a practice that sustains the health of our souls and so much more could be said about it. Perhaps it is best to allow Henri Nouwen to have the last word. 

"We are usually surrounded by so much inner and outer noise that it is hard to truly hear our God when he is speaking to us...Thus our lives have become absurd. In the word absurd we find the Latin word surdus which means deaf. A spiritual life requires discipline because we need to learn to listen to God, who constantly speaks but we seldom hear.”


Oh that God, through our silence, may teach us to truly hear what He has to say.


Learning to listen with you,