You would think silence would be an easy thing to practice. I mean, really…is it even something you can Do? Or is it more of a Not-Doing? And yet it is oddly difficult to choose silence, and do it repeatedly, consistently. We tend to consider it a moment of happenstance, however welcome it may come, or maybe something to pursue every now and then if we are unusually overwhelmed by normal life. My brother-in-law flees to the woods and the mountains periodically in his year, deliberately exchanging his busy people-oriented life for the peace and quiet of nature for a week or two to re-charge his emotional batteries. Several mothers I know would probably settle for a half hour alone anywhere, for any purpose, even locked in the bathroom…and even that is no guarantee of actual silence. As a regular spiritual practice, it seems rather foreign to us (or maybe a little too mystical) and we wonder how exactly one goes about such a thing and why it matters.
The late author/professor Dallas Willard suggests that we practice silence in two ways: by evading noise and intrusive sounds (whether traffic, or Pandora radio, or alarms, or kitchen appliances) and by avoiding talk. Not that any of these are bad things, but they do distract and clutter our minds and spirits with constant noise that requires us to multi-task just to function. Because we are surrounded by such noise from birth, we are hardly even aware of it as a stressor. Our ears and brains have grown accustomed to filtering out what we deem unnecessary and focusing on whatever we need in the moment, and often partially focusing on several things at once. It doesn’t feel like hard work at all– it feels like normalcy. And therein lies the subtle misdirection of our energies, so that normal everyday surroundings claim more and more of our attention, our brains grow used to the constant distractions….and silence becomes more and more an occasional oddity.
It shouldn’t be surprising then, that we rarely sink into the contemplative awareness that lets us examine our hearts and connect with God meaningfully. I wonder how many of us Christ-followers are withering away on the inside from chronic neglect of the spirit while we chase after the tyranny of the urgent on the outside? So our challenge this week is to try out silence, like a new dress in a clothing store– just trying on ten minutes a day of retreating and listening to the quiet, turning our attention towards our Heavenly Father.
It may be harder than it seems, to create that small respite from the noise. Now that I am looking for the silence, I am discovering how loud my world actually is, and how hard it is to pull away from the constant input, even if it is only the quiet noise of written words. For me, silence won’t happen on its own, and if I don’t intentionally step off the merry-go-round to grow this healthy habit I will just keep whirling around in the familiar sensory overload.
And of course when you start looking for silence it doesn’t take you long to realize that outer silence does not guarantee inner stillness. You can find quiet places and still have the inner roar of thoughts and emotions. But the silence is a place to start. Not for His sake (as if He requires the silence to speak to us), but for ours, so we are in a place where we can hear Him. Because God is always with us and His Spirit is always speaking to His own, if we have ears to hear. Jesus said “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27) It’s as much a heart issue as it is an ears issue; what you actually hear often depends on what you value…what you are seeking. Those who are serious about following the Good Shepherd want to catch His every word, will drop everything to listen to Him….don’t care about normal as much as they care about growing closer to Him. I suspect that as we train ourselves to be still and listen in God’s presence, we will discover great riches in the silence. And in the silence we will be able to agree with David, “The Lord is my shepherd, I have all that I need. He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams.” (Psalm 23:1-2)
“Our habits unclothe us — they expose our wounds, our insecurities, our idols, our addictions — or our hopes, our dreams, our prayers. Our habits are us. The patterns of our lives reveal the form of our souls….You change your life when you change what you do everyday.” (Ann VosKamp)
“For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.” (Hebrews 4:12)