Week 3 – The Prayer of Silence
Silence has been said to be “God’s first language” and yet, how few have explored the cavernous depths of this ancient and timely practice. Approaching this practice through the writing of words seems both ironic and counter-intuitive.
Still, having acknowledged the discrepancy, perhaps a few words might help both illuminate our understanding and assist us in overcoming some common obstacles we face in entering this sacred space.
In 2001, Apple Founder Steve Jobs announced he was about to put “1,000 songs in your pocket”. It’s safe to say over the next (nearly) two-decades, he and the rest of the folks at Apple accomplished this goal and FAR more. In devices the size of our hand, we can summon seemingly endless digital archives of world-class lecturers and teachers, books, music with little more than a thumbprint and a tap of our finger. If you’re like me, this unfathomable digital library often streams into my consciousness through tiny white earphones which are connected not by wires, but some fantastical force constructed of blue teeth which extend far beyond my understanding.
It’s brilliant. It’s astonishing. It’s addictive.
It’s no wonder we struggle to enter into silence.
Even when we find momentary relief from the external voices that clamour for our attention, our internal voices can be just as disruptive. Though we may be sitting on the quietest mountainside, our over-active brains can still whir with thoughts from the past and concerns about the future. We stay trapped by replaying old hurts and regrets, by creating never-ending to-do-lists attempting to manage our anxieties or control our future.
Undoubtedly, we gain wisdom and knowledge through reviewing past events and in planning forward. Still, we must train ourselves to detach our identity from these stories.
This is not suggesting we deny our previous experiences or ignore future responsibilities, but if we want to meet with God, the place where that happens is in this moment here and now.
The practice of silence begins a process of clearing out the mind. This clearing away is not about getting out of our head as much as it is about getting into our right mind.
Silence can quiet our self-concerned “monkey-mind” and open us up to receive and put on the mind of Christ (Phil 2:1-11).
When we engage scripture, we are reading the words of God. When we move into silence, we are discovering the voice of God. It was clear Jesus knew the distinction between the two. When the Spirit led Him into the wilderness to be tested, the evil one attempted to deceive Jesus by quoting the words of scripture (Matthew 4:1-11)
However, Jesus didn’t only know the word, but intimately knew the voice of the One who had spoken the word. Jesus expected that his disciples would have the same familiarity with his voice. He said his sheep hear his voice and follow (John 10:1-30).
To hear well and discern the voice of our Good Shepherd amidst all the other voices in our world, we need to posture ourselves to deeply and reflectively listen. As writer Adele Calhoun writes,
“Silence asks for patience and waiting”.
In a culture driven by productivity and the bottom line, we spend our time looking for ways to make our lives more efficient, comfortable and convenient. “Patience and waiting”, even if it sounds nice, can seem like a waste of time.
Silence invites us to redefine “productive”. This time is not for coming up with strategies to fix our life, but a time to rest in God. The high-yielding activity here is being with God without an agenda. The practice of silence forms our life, even if it doesn’t fix our life.
At many places throughout scripture, God comes in quiet and humble ways which are unexpected for an all-powerful being. With Adam, he walked as a friend in the breezy time of day (Gen 3:8 NRSV). To Elijah, he came, not in the dramatics of a strong wind, earthquake, or fire, but in the sound of sheer silence (1 Kings 19:12 NRSV).
To all of humanity, God came in the poverty and meekness of a feeding trough surrounded by ordinary shepherds.
I believe God still speaks in the quiet and unsuspecting places of our days, lives, and hearts – ready to reveal himself to any willing to stop and listen.
1. If you are new to silence, start small. Five or ten minutes of dedicated silence each day is an excellent way to begin building your silence and listening muscles.
- Turn off your cell phone and other potential distractions (you might want to set a timer to keep you from constantly checking on the remaining time).
- Settle into the stillness of the moment and (without analysing it) bring the reality of God’s presence to your awareness.
- Pay attention to what you hear, feel, or sense. Sounds of birds; the breeze moving against your arm; a car driving past; your sore back, etc.
- Then, with a big exhale, release all of the thoughts, feelings, and noises from your focus.
- With each exhale release more and more thoughts to God and deepen the stillness.
- Lean into God, trusting that being with Him in silence will loosen your rootedness in the world and plant you by streams of living water.
2. If you’re driving, at the office, or working around the house try doing it in silence without any external noises like music/podcasts/TV, etc. Go about your tasks submitting them (and your hard work) as an offering of service and gift to God.
3. A unique way of practising silence is to spend a day giving up our freedom to have the last word. If your co-worker, boss, spouse, or children say something that provokes you, allow them to have the final say on the matter and silently submit it to Christ, trusting that He can “straighten them out” much more lovingly and effectively than we can. Much of our wanting to have the last word comes from our need to be right, understood, or seen in a particular light. We often spend a considerable amount of energy managing other’s perceptions of us. Silence cuts all of that off at the base.
4. For the courageous of heart, attempt going an entire day without speaking. Turn off devices and other “noise” (this includes any books other than the bible) and spend the day in friendship with God. Silence can often be used as a source of disconnection and punishment toward those who have hurt us, so if you are with family invite them into this practice with you or make sure they understand the purpose of your silence. After all, silence is a gift, not a weapon.
** It needs to be said that for those who have undergone significant trauma or are suffering from severe anxiety or depression that sitting in silence may feel impossible. Know that this is okay, and you are not alone. The most beneficial steps for entering this space may be to begin walking with a wise mentor or healthcare professional.
Calhoun, Adele Ahlberg. 2005. Spiritual Disciplines Handbook : practices that transform us. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
Keating, Thomas. 1994. Intimacy with God. New York: Crossroad.
Payne, Leanne. 1999. Listening Prayer : learning to hear God’s voice and keep a prayer journal. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.
Willard, Dallas. 1991. The Spirit of the Disciplines : understanding how God changes lives. New York: Harper One.