The Gift of Silence

Whatever the future holds for the church and the nation and the world, I think silence will have to play a significant part in it.

I know this runs against the current pattern of our common thinking and living. I am typing right now on a device that never ceases to amaze me with its ability to both educate and distract. I can push a button and have all the news of the day, along with the opinions of more people than I could possibly read with any depth at my fingertips. Any question I might have I can get answered by merely typing into Google, or looking at Wikipedia, or asking Siri.

I attended an event a number of years ago in a setting that prides itself on lack of cell phone coverage. Once you got down into the valley, you might as well turn off all outside connections, because they would not work. Those were some amazing years, with heartfelt and genuine community built among the participants, much of which was made possible – one has to imagine – because of the lack of distractions.

Now that same event takes place on a college campus, with live Tweeting and constant Facebook updates. I know community still happens (one only has to read the Tweets and status updates to see that), and no doubt the event still changes lives. I am aware that the World Wide Web offers its own brand of togetherness, and I may be hopelessly behind the times. But I feel a sense of loss in knowing that one more space, one more opportunity for people to unplug and connect in a different kind of way – absent 140 character blurbs and incessant chatter about nothing – is now lost to the world. What will be the price of such loss? One price I fear is the loss of any kind of depth, and with it, the chance for true wisdom.

I spent the first part of my sabbatical in a monastery, surrounded by silence. And in these final days I am alone in a small mountain cabin, surrounded by trees, the only sound the occasional rain and the birds who come up on the porch to feed their babies in a small nest. It would be a lie to say it is easy, this silence. It is not. The lure of technology – including the iPad I am writing on right now – is ever present, offering its narcotic. It is not easy. But it is necessary.

At a recent lecture, I heard Phyllis Tickle describe most Americans as “bone-tired” when they come home at the end of the day, filled to the brim with information and noise, opinion and hyperbole, but very little wisdom.

If the church has a place in the coming so-called “post-Christian” era, surely it will be in the cultivation of a counter-cultural wisdom, an antidote to frenetic busyness and noise. Perhaps one of the gifts we can offer this bone-tired world is the gift of silence.

I am grateful to the congregation I serve – a place rich in the gifts of silence and wisdom – for the grace of this time apart to experience quiet spaces and the gentle voice of God within them. I look forward to returning to them, so that we can together discern how the gift of Sabbath might be offered to the world God loves and for which Christ died.

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10 thoughts on “The Gift of Silence

  1. Great food for thought, Chris. As you know, I struggle with Sabbath and disconnecting. A friend today reminded me that she read that if you are constantly worried and connected, you will miss hearing the voice of God. I look forward to exploring ways we as a church can seek the silence to be able to listen more closely to the voice of God.

    • Thanks Carol. You are not alone in that struggle. It may be one of the defining spiritual struggles of our time – how to sort through the noise to the essential, and how to discern God’s voice.

  2. Last night, I sat with a community friends to share concerns about a serious situation. As everyone spoke, the discussion grew loud and excited because this small community had experienced loss and sadness. I shared the loss but seriously wanted to forge a new beginning.
    I left the face to face meeting of Godly women still unsure and confused about many things.The more we talked, the more we lost our direction and I certainly couldn’t hear the voice of God in the heat of all those experiences and opinions.
    Facebook or email would have been a poor vehicle for our situation but there is something to be said for the remoteness it provides.

    • Priscilla, I do think there are times when Facebook and things like it can provide a needed distance from the heat of interaction. Used wisely, it can help us gather our thoughts and express them in a careful, clear, and loving way. However, I think it should only be a means to the end of genuine verbal face to face conversation.

      • Chris,
        I had hoped to say that when face to face encounters are messy and tough, the distance offered by technology can seem, for a moment, appealing.

  3. To be the devil’s advocate (a skill encouraged and honed in graduate school)–how do you see silence fitting into a church which requires six pages of inserts in the Sunday bulletin to describe all its activities? And when does solitary silent activity become loneliness?

    • Good questions, Susan, and the answer to each is similar, from my perspective. Loneliness in my experience has very little to do with being alone or working in silence. Some of the loneliest people I know never stop moving, never cease activity, and are rarely quiet. Likewise, lots of activities in a church bulletin do not necessarily equate to a lack of silence or a depth of spirituality. In fact, often the opposite is the case – but much depends on the nature of the activities. First Presbyterian does have a lot of bulletin inserts – an issue we continue to try and address – but bulletin inserts alone are not an indicator of the spiritual life of a community of faith anymore than being alone is an indicator of loneliness.

      In the end, we do the best we can and depend on God’s grace to sustain us. I am reminded of Ecclesiastes – “There is a time to speak and a time to remain silent.” Wise people, and churches, practice each in their time.

      So I guess the answer to your questions is that churches, especially ones with lots of programs, have to be very intentional in creating opportunities for quiet within that programming. Loneliness is a spiritual condition that can be exacerbated by being alone if the underlying condition is not addressed.

      • I’m afraid that I did not make myself clear. In my first question, I was not thinking of silence as the lack of sound, but more as the opposite of “frenetic busyness”. To me, your blog post on silence somewhat conflates these two ideas. You write about the silence of withdrawal from the world in the monastery and in the mountains and you propose that the church might contribute silence to a tired world; however, our church is the opposite of withdrawal and I think that is as it should be. I was not being critical of bulletin inserts or of all the activities that they represent. In fact, I relish the activities that our church supports. On the other hand, I think that the proliferation of activities, even meaningful activities, can sometimes make it difficult to choose wisely and to participate deeply, So my question was not intended to be critical, but my wondering if the proliferation of activities and ubiquitous meetings contributes to a shallowness of spirituality and my personal reflection on how to achieve a depth of spirituality in the face of so much going on. Creating opportunities for silence is a good start, but how do we take advantage of them when they require time and attention that can be in short supply in a busy program? How do we encourage people to take advantage of these activities and to educate them on how to participate meaningfully?

      • I am currently reading a book by Richard Rohr entitled “A Lever and A Place to Stand: The Contemplative Stance, the Active Prayer.” As the title suggests, he plays around with the dichotomies we so casually use – a dichotomy I know I use too often – which is the notion that prayer/contemplation is somehow withdrawal and passivity and activism/mission/programming is active and dynamic. He suggests there is such a thing as “contemplative activity” and vice versa. I think this is a good word for churches like ours, one that has a proliferation of activities and a faith-filled people who long to put their faith into action both in the church and out in the world. I think the real challenge for us is how to make that activity “contemplative” in the sense Rohr uses, which I hear echoed in your question about achieving a depth of spirituality with so much going on. At a practical level, perhaps we could intentionally create within our more outward focused programs and missions an attention to spirituality – and in our more inward directed programs an attention to the world and what God is doing within it and inviting us to join.

        I don’t think withdrawal for its own sake is helpful – the church has a checkered 2000 year history of withdrawal that served to separate it from the pain of God’s beloved world. However, withdrawal for the sake of growth so that one may re-enter the world and have something meaningful and faithful to offer is essential. I hope what happens on Sunday morning at church is just that kind of withdrawal, and I do think it is one of the gifts the church can offer to a bone-tired, information-saturated world.

        At a really practical level, I try to encourage people in the church to find one calling about which they have passion and gifts to share, and pursue it completely. I don’t think it is a healthy expectation if the church asks its people to be involved in everything the church does. Better to worship on the Lords Day, find one study/growth opportunity, and/or one avenue of mission/service and become meaningfully involved in one thing than to become guilt ridden and exhausted trying to do everything. The luxury of a church our size is that it can issue such an invitation.

        That is easier said than done. We have so many wonderful things going on that the temptation is to jump into all of them. That is great as long as the spiritual life doesn’t suffer in the process, but hard to maintain over the long haul.

        I appreciate your questions and value your perspective. I didn’t hear you being critical so much as issuing an important warning that sometimes all those good things reflected in the bulletin inserts can contribute to frenetic busyness rather than contemplation. Over time, such activity can contribute to a thinning out of spirituality.

        Your thoughtful questions and the spirit in which you offer them are an example of what makes First Presbyterian such a vibrant place to serve. Thank you for helping me think this through more carefully.

  4. Pingback: Sound of Silence « My Private Universe

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