When I think of silence, the first thing that pops into my mind is the Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel. The line that most impacted me in my childhood was Silence like a cancer grows… Our society apparently took the warning very seriously because now silence is disappearing altogether. I remember once reading that thirty seconds of silence can really make a classroom uncomfortable. I tested that theory frequently and found that my students could generally withstand twenty seconds before someone raised their hand to dispel the awkwardness.
As for myself, I filled my solitude with music. That the music was usually worship or at least spiritual didn’t matter. With music, my solitude often soothed me, but it lacked power. I did not really discover silence until I began to work from home. My youngest leaving for college helped too. But as I look at the past forty-nine years of my life, my avoidance of silence rings clear and loud.
Now, after a year of being forced to live in relative silence in order to write, I crave it. I have discovered whole new vistas of imagination and untamed arenas of my heart. I learned early on in my spiritual walk that if I wanted to hear God, I needed to be silent. But the hour after hour, day after day, of living in quiet has quick-started a process of internal growth. My powers of concentration are stretching out longer and longer. The fight to distract myself with noise has diminished to a mere hum, but only after a year.
But three main effects have really impressed me in this time of silence. I did not expect them, nor was I really looking for them. I am really grateful, however, that the fruit of this time is ripening. Over one hundred blog posts and one revision of my novel later, I owe my newfound creativity to silence. But the spiritual benefits are both more painful and healing than I realized when I began to turn off the Netflix, the Pandora, and the Spotify. Even the silent voice of social media has needed to be specifically avoided for me to grow. So here they are, in no particular order.
In silence, the heart can truly pray. One Desert Father instructed his listeners by telling them that in prayer, we bring our minds down into our heart and sit at the throne of God. My mind works overtime. But the heart sings a much quieter tune than our minds. The coursing river of our heart moves at a slower and deeper pace than our minds but make no mistake. Your heart often determines the direction of your mind, rather than the other way around. It is out of the heart that a man speaks, not his mind, says Scripture.
In the silence, I discovered a constant, anxious urgency in the powerful currents of my heart. I could only rest if the items on my list were crossed off. I awoke to create more lists in the name of being productive. Silence highlighted my unnecessary stress. Silence helped me chain the dogs of hurry and rush that have nipped at my heels my entire adulthood. How could I even approach this victory of prayer if I didn’t stop and recognize the issue?
A second effect of living in the quiet place is an increased sense of the presence of God. I have consumed so many books about hearing God. Some hear him in words in their spirit; others get impressions. Still others feel as if pieces of the Bible are highlighted just for them. And I have experienced God in all of those ways. But in the quiet, my first expectation was that I would somehow hear Him more. And I do but in a new way. I still hear things or feel the nudge of the Holy Spirit. Now, however, a companionship has taken the place of the straining to hear God’s whisper. Once I let go the urgency, compounded by my rushed devotionals, prayer is no longer doing but being.
Being in the presence of God now means just that. I am in His presence and He moves me as He wills, even as I go about the business of my day with its laundry and muddy floors. We are told to pray without ceasing, but nowadays we treat that as hyperbole. That must be an exaggeration of the spiritual kind by an over-eager Paul. I still feel as though I skim the surface of that kind of constant prayer, but now I see that prayer as communion does not have to be turned off the way we turn off the oven when the roast is done. My heart does not turn off and so my communion with God doesn’t have to be either.
The third effect I have found is increased sensitivity to noise. I don’t mean that I am like the cranky old man who is always telling the pastor to turn down the music. I sat watching a news program recently and found myself turning down the volume until I just turned it off. The disrespect with which the two combatants treated each other has become intolerable to me. Choose whichever program, whichever political leaning, and you will find loaded question after loaded question aimed at each other like bullets.
A time and a place exist for debate, and in my classroom, I try to stimulate raucous argumentation. But I always have the caveat that everyone gets to finish their thought. But every night in my living room, giant heads berating each other is agonizing. It interferes with my sense of God’s presence. I am a sucker for reality television contests like The Voice. At least there, people are fighting for their dreams. But the manipulative canned laughter on sitcoms and the constant sound of gunfire that emanates from the television wears me out.
I used to use the excuse of raising six kids for why my forays into quiet were so seldom. And some truth exists there. But I knew that silence waited for me, has always waited for me. I think we fear silence the way we fear death. We do not know what we will find there. I remember reading one of my poems on the radio in Kentucky. My first time in a sound booth and my mind was blown. I have never heard my own thoughts so clearly.
Only later did I think to question myself. How am I to take my thoughts captive if I can’t hear myself think? The sounds of this busy world muddy everything. We walk into a store and music we would never listen to alone because of the content drowns our thoughts. Even the grocery stores and coffee shops pipe suggestive lyrics or pounding rhythms into our thought streams. The world was much quieter when the Desert Fathers fled to the desert. Imagine what they might say to us if they were to walk down the storefronts of the local mall today.
In rest and repentance is your salvation, but you would have none of it the Lord says in Isaiah. It took Father Anthony over two decades in the desert to face his inner turmoil. That is a lot of rest and repentance. If we do not find our deserts somewhere in the overgrown jungles of our lives, we cannot hope to find that salvation which requires a working out in fear and trembling. To invite silence is to bravely face the inner self, the one that will come face to face with the Father. To live in quiet is to become one with oneself and with the Father, just as Jesus prayed.
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