The first silent retreat I attended was an out-and-out disaster.
I was preparing for confirmation along with a group of my 14-year-old peers; part of our making-ready incorporated a silent overnight stay in a convent. To my shame, my rebellious streak got the better of me, and along with a fellow teenage partner in crime, we destroyed the otherwise peaceful meals with fits of giggles and stayed up half the night chatting. I’m not sure my poor RE teacher, tasked with disciplining us, ever recovered.
Now an adult (and of course usually much more serious and sober), I still feel distinctly edgy as I book in for a day-long silent retreat. My reticence goes beyond fear of being bored or frustrated. I’m concerned about what will surface. What will God say when I have so much space to hear him?
Pump up the volume
In our noise-cluttered world, it isn’t always easy to remove ourselves from the familiarity of constant sound ? even as followers of Christ, who regularly took himself off alone, to be and pray in the stillness. So why are we so reluctant to engage in silence? ‘When you are in silence, you tend to meet yourself,’ says retreat leader Rev Tony Horsfall. ‘Most of us don’t want to do this because there are things inside that will need sorting out. We would rather keep busy, keep noisy, keep on the move, so that we don’t have to face up to our inner issues.’
Culture can give us a sense that silence is unsatisfying and incomplete. In Helping Teenagers to Pray (SPCK), Mark Yaconelli writes: ‘In our culture, silence is often taken to mean that something is lacking, something is missing. We fear the dreaded loneliness that might overtake us if we were forced to live without the talking pictures, the jingly pop songs, and the life-absorbing amusements that fill up all our unscheduled moments. Silence is likened to going without ? to be lacking and poor…In silence there is only the stark struggle to perceive life as it really is.’
Silence can even be physically unbearable: the location holding the Guinness World Record for being the world’s quietest place is a 99.99% sound absorbent room created in a laboratory in South Minneapolis, US. So far, it has only ever been tolerated for 45 minutes.
But to erode silence from our life’s experience is not only to ignore a significant aspect of Christ’s spirituality and personhood, but also to overlook a practice interwoven throughout the history of Christian tradition. We worship a God who doesn’t always speak ? at times his apparent silence can be almost impossible to reconcile with our own faith. Could an understanding of silence help us appreciate better this aspect of the divine?
All by myself
Spending time in silence usually also requires us to engage in another spiritual discipline that may go against the grain of our faith practice ? solitude. ‘The invitation of intimacy that Jesus gives us inevitably involves a call to be alone with him. The pressures of life do not make this easy to do, and nor does the ethos of contemporary evangelical and charismatic Christianity, obsessed as it is with activity and achievement,’ writes Horsfall in Rhythms of Grace (BRF).
Do traditional Protestant ways of engaging with God in the corporate setting set us up to struggle with stillness and silence? Diarmaid MacCulloch, author of Silence: A Christian History (Allen Lane) says, ‘Protestantism is bad at relying too much on words ? sermons and hymns and congregational jolliness. Behind that is something much more.
‘The Reformation contributed towards destroying that “moreness” ? the silence, the monasteries, the contemplation. That unbalanced Western Christianity.’
MacCulloch believes that we need to try to redress the balance within our church services, describing the need to always be cheerful in church as ‘wearing’. ‘Lots of forms of worship and liturgy don’t try to be cheerful; it’s possible to explore silence, and emotions such as anger and sorrow. The Psalms are good for this…those are some of the elements that to me seem to be hugely precious about liturgy.’
God in my silence
Silence can initially be very uncomfortable, but for many it can form the basis of a profound spiritual encounter. During his mid 20s, former BBC economics correspondent Graham Turner was ‘corralled into a period of silence’ by a Christian friend while based in Singapore with the air force.
‘I had never thought about being silent before ? the only thing I was interested in was cricket matches,’ he says. ‘One evening while having coffee in our rooms, my friend said: “Would you like to listen to God?” I thought he must have gone off his head. I said, “I’m afraid I don’t believe in God.” He said “Well, that doesn’t alter God’s situation in the slightest.” There was no answer to that, so he presented me with a piece of paper and said we should sit in silence, and I should consider my life in the light of Jesus’ high standards. I was paralysed by embarrassment. “Just write down what you get,” he told me.
‘Immediately, a thought came into my head that I had never had before. “You are a dictator on the cricket field ? apologise to your team…” The second thing was: “When you went to went up to Oxford you became a snob: write to your parents and apologise.” It went on like that.
‘It never occurred to me not to obey those thoughts; I think I obeyed all of them. A strange thing happened; when I walked out of that room, I felt happier than I ever had in my entire life.’ It is this awareness of the ‘explosive power of silence’ which inspired Turner to write his recently published The Power of Silence: The Riches That Lie Within (Bloomsbury).
IF YOU LEARN TO HEAR GOD IN THE SILENCE YOU WILL HEAR HIM IN THE NOISE
Since that time, Turner has had daily quiet times in God’s presence. The difference that it makes to his life is ‘huge ? I’ve taken all the big decisions in my life on the basis of what came to me in those quiet times’ ? although there was a period in the 60s when he became career-focused and stopped doing so. When he resumed the practice, he again found he had to face his own mistakes. ‘The first thought I had was to go to the Inland Revenue and tell them that I had been fiddling my taxes. That is not an easy experience, I can tell you ? I eventually went to the BBC and told them I had been fiddling my expenses too. The whole thing cost £2,000, which was our entire savings.
‘If we approach silence as a way of opening the door to God ? giving him a chance to tell us how he sees us ? we may get all kinds of uncomfortable thoughts, as I did. Things we’ve done that need putting right; behaviour we need to amend. It is not an easy option. My experience is that when we obey we get a response of great love from God.’ Turner continues: ‘Later that same year, completely out of the blue, I won a couple of prizes which were rather over £2,000. That’s a concrete example of the love of God that comes back to us whenever we obey, particularly in the difficult things.’
While we might believe that God will speak to us in silence, the discipline of building this into our daily or weekly routine often eludes us. Rev Mike Shaw of Devonport Community Baptist Church shares how when he was training for ministry, he was initially ‘intimidated’ by the day he had to spend each term in silence. In time, however, he came to see its value. ‘I found it to be something that stimulates me in a way I didn’t expect,’ he says. ‘It’s like a fast; it focuses your mind.’
Shaw now spends the occasional day in silence and half an hour in silence every morning. ‘Taking a pause is like a Sabbath; it’s being able to stop and realise that there’s nothing else I need to do,’ he says. Shaw is learning to hear God’s voice in this space, but this isn’t always easy. ‘It’s not like the more silent you are, the more God speaks. You can’t conjure up God’s voice; it’s not like a magic trick. Sometimes you spend three or four hours in silence, and then you sense something. You think, “What was that?” and then it’s gone. It’s very fleeting.’
Coming before God in silence can embody our sense that we don’t have life all sewn up; we don’t have all the answers. Nick Parish, a stay-at-home dad who is learning to incorporate silence into his faith life (and writing a manuscript on contemplative spirituality) describes spending time in silence as ‘giving yourself the opportunity to give in to God’. For Parish, silence is a place of humility; a place to go when we are wondering what to do.
Parish describes silence as a ‘training ground for listening to God’. He reflects on the story of Samuel being called by the audible voice of God in 1 Samuel 3, saying that we must consider what we are tuned into in the silence. ‘Samuel didn’t recognise God’s voice ? therefore he didn’t initially realise that it was God, when God spoke to him.’
The more active Christian among us might argue that spending hours ? or even longer ? silently before God is a form of escapism. But Parish asserts, ‘Silence should equip you for the times beyond the silence. If you learn to hear God in the silence, you will learn to hear him in the noise.
‘Silence is like backing off and taking a deep breath before you dive into the swimming pool of life. It’s a preparation rather than an escape.’ Founder of Ministries by Design and retreat leader Rev Penelope Swithinbank agrees. ‘Silence can lead to an inner peace that we realise we have been missing; it can increase calmness and so actually lead to greater activity and a deeper awareness of God with us.’ Their words echo Mother Teresa’s ? known of course, for her practical, servant-hearted expression of faith: ‘The more we receive in silent prayer, the more we can give in our active life. We need silence to be able to touch souls.’
I find myself wondering whether all this extolling of the virtues of silence is simply another way of describing the traditional ‘quiet time’. ‘It’s what the traditional quiet time should be all about,’ says Horsfall, whose book exploring contemplative spirituality, Rhythms of Grace, was inspired by his growing alarm at the number of highly qualified and gifted people involved in Christian ministry who experience burnout. ‘We’ve made a work out of the quiet time. We think we’ve got to read through the Bible in a year, pray for a certain number of people; it becomes a work rather than a place of deep connection with God.’ On the other hand, Turner points out that ‘quiet is a friendlier word than silence’, so there’s an argument for sticking with the usual terminology. The question though, is what we do (or don’t do) in the silence.
The silence of God
Engaging with silence can help us comprehend our sometimes silent God in a new way.
Last week I tootled off on that day-long silent retreat. I’m not the only person doing this: ‘The nice thing about the modern age is that Christians are rediscovering silence ? people are beginning to see that there is something precious about the silences of monastic life ? those silences are spreading. There is a democratisation of silence in modern Christianity. Things that only monks and nuns used to do, like going on retreats, lots of Christians do now,’ says MacCulloch.
Admittedly I was a tiny bit disappointed that there was no clear-asa-bell audible word from God during my silent day; there were no mindblowing spiritual revelations. But to my surprise, the day was deeply enjoyable, in the truest sense of the word. As I read, walked, prayed and ate alone in the quietness, I was transported back to the days ? pre-children ? when I used to spend long periods of time quietly in God’s presence. And once again I experienced that simple peace and joy at simply knowing the presence and love of God that only the Spirit can bring. Horsfall expresses this far better than I can. ‘Silence and stillness are part of a bigger journey of coming to know that I am loved as I am. It’s about identity ? my identity based in who I am, not what I do. Stillness is part of discovering and nurturing that. I can stop and do nothing and still be greatly loved.’
The Elizabethans described language as ‘decorated silence’. So, enough words from me. Venture forth and engage in some silence.
Tony Horsfall’s guidelines on how to begin including silence into your spiritual life
Begin by reading about the spiritual significance of silence; allow yourself to get inspired about giving it a try.
Try a guided retreat or quiet day ? ideally it should incorporate some short periods of silence and perhaps some meditations and biblical teaching on it.
Be willing to practise and persevere. It takes time to learn the skill of being still and quiet.
Your context is important ? if you can find a spot that is physically silent, you’ll be amazed at what that does in itself.
Consider what spiritual direction and mentoring you are receiving. Time in silence doesn’t stand alone. This should all be part of a bigger journey.