Embacing silence is an art. In fact, it is a lost art for many. How many of us can embrace or even enjoy the silence in a conversation that has run dry of relevant topics? Do we turn the radio on as soon as we sit in our car? How about exercising with an iPod? I don’t believe any of these realities are inherently bad, but I am discovering that the majority (I am the worst of these!) of people in our society aren’t comfortable with silence. Rather than silence being the default reality, “noise” has become the default.
The Carthusians (of the Benedictine tradition) are a monastic order who believe that silence is foundational to all meaningful spirituality. With the exception of shared liturgy and prayer, they live lives of complete silence. They work in silence, eat in silence, walk in silence…For the Carthusians, God doesn’t speak to them because of the silence, instead they experience God speaking to them within the silence. The recent documentary (which I still haven’t seen) Into Great Silence chronicles the life of a community living in a Carthusian monastery.
A couple weeks ago I went on a day long silent retreat to a local monastery. It was a requirement for a Spiritual Disciplines course I am currently taking, but I was really looking forward to the extended silence. Sadly, it seems that it takes something “forced” upon me to slow down long enough to experience such silence. I prayed that the time would be loud in ways other than sound.
After an opening shared liturgy and prayer, I entered into my time of complete silence. To be honest, it was a bit terrifying. 20 minutes of silence can feel like an eternity, so staring 6 hours in the face was a daunting prospect. Further, when left only with the option of introspection, your mind starts to dig up stuff that has been buried by distraction and busyness for a long time. It took the first hour to go through a disciplined inventory/evaluation of my heart and mind in an effort to be centered in silence before Jesus. I sensed the need to simply be present, rather than move forward with any agenda or asking.
Although there were a couple of spiritual exercises (Centering Prayer and Stations of the Cross), the time was spent purely in a place of introspective silence…and it was hard. It is a discipline that I have far from mastered, but was made aware of the formative place such a discipline should have in my life. I can see why the Desert Fathers considered their time in isolation to be a profound experience of temptation. How can one be tempted when removed from society? When we leave ourselves exposed to the realities of our inner being, we run into all sorts of stuff that tempts us to entertain thoughts, emotions and memories that lead down destructive paths. It is in facing those temptations and wading through them that we find ourselves more present before our Maker than ever before. I think Jesus experienced and embodied this reality in his 40 days in the desert (Matt. 4).
My time was blanketed in silence, but it was really loud.
Is the art of embracing silence something that you have wrested with? What is it that keeps us from such a discipline? What are some practices that may be helpful as we create room for silence in our daily/weekly rhythm’s of life?