The Sounds of Silence

K   |   May 10, 2022 

I have always been a talker; my family lore is filled with stories of family members' efforts to get me to be quiet. I rarely got into trouble in school, except for talking when I was supposed to be working. In high school, I put that talking to good use, joining my school's debating team and even winning a state championship (the only thing I have ever won).

So with that word filled foundation, you can imagine that talking has also been a big part of my relationship with God. From early on in my journey with Jesus, I prayed out loud, or if I wasn't able to speak out my prayers, I moved my lips and prayed in my head. I am sure that plenty of my neighbours thought I was crazy as I walked around my yard or down my street, talking out loud to Jesus! Words said aloud are how I interact with the world around me.

I was first introduced to the idea of silence when I read Richard Foster's book Celebration of Discipline during my final year of university. I have to admit I thought it was crazy and definitely "not for me". How could I relate to God if I didn't talk with him? Prayer was "talking to God" after all. So I put the idea of silence in the too hard/not for me basket and tried to forget about it.

Over the last three decades, God has brought me back to the idea of silence several times, and each time I would tell him (out loud and in words) that silence was NOT for me. One memorable time I accidentally attended a five-day silent retreat. I had signed up for a retreat that included time on my own ( I could see the point of solitude) and times to talk with others (which is how I process what I am learning). A change in the retreat leader due to illness meant that I got five days of silence (including all meals). It was five of the most challenging days of my life, and I came away thinking - nope - silence is NOT for me.

Then came COVID-19. I live on my own, and the lockdowns and restrictions meant that over the last two years, I have spent most of almost every day by myself. I tried distractions to fill the quiet, but there were only so many times I could replay my favourite TV series or re-read my favourite books. I tried filling time with Zoom calls and work, but I couldn't get away from the reality that I was by myself and that most of the time, there was no one to talk to except me. I could no longer ignore silence.

In those early days of lockdown, my journey into silence came at least partially out of my struggle with anxiety. I found myself praying the same prayers repeatedly and, exhausted by stress, simply walked back and forth through my apartment in silence - I had nothing left to say.

At the same time, I began to use the Lectio Divina process of praying through scripture. Lectio Divina (Holy Reading) includes time for reading, meditating on scripture, praying and sitting silently in God's presence. Rather than focusing on learning something new about God, Lectio Divina seeks to create a space for us to hear God's voice by allowing us room to sit in silence with God. It has been in those moments of silence immersed in prayer that I have discovered I can best hear God's whisper in my heart.

I am encouraged that Jesus often sought out times of silence. Mark tells the story of one of these occasions where Jesus went off in the night to pray (and be silent). The following day, the disciples get up and find Jesus not with them, which leads to some rather frantic searching. When they finally find Jesus, he tells them it is time to move on to the next village. It is clear from the disciple's actions that many were still waiting in Capernaum, wanting to be healed, but Jesus had other plans. His time silently listening for the Father's voice had given him the next steps, and he was ready to move forward in obedience. (Mark 1:35-39)

Silence is, however, neither easy nor comfortable. In her Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun points out that "In quietness we often notice things we would rather not notice or feel. Pockets of sadness or anger or loneliness or impatience begin to surface. Our own outer agenda looms larger than our desire to be with God in silence. And as the silence settles in and nothing seems to be happening, we often struggle with the feeling that we are wasting time."[i]

I still struggle with silence, one minute feels like five or ten, and I have to pull my distracted mind back, again and again, to focus on listening to Jesus. I have discovered that I need not judge the level of distractedness I experience. One day I will be very distracted; another day, I will find it easier to focus and listen for the Holy Spirit's quiet voice. The focused day is not better than the distracted day; both are opportunities to be present with my Beloved.

Hints for Embracing Silence

  • Be comfortable - nothing is more distracting than an uncomfortable posture - do what works for you - for some, that is sitting in a straight back chair with feet on the floor; for me, it usually is sitting curled up on my sofa.
  • Use a timer - it helps with the distraction of wondering if I have been doing this silence thing for long enough.
  • Start small - two or three minutes can seem like an eternity if you are new to silence; begin with a short time, and when you feel like you want more, increase it slowly (an increase of one minute at a time is just fine)
  • Be regular - silence has to be learned, so plan time to do it every day or at least several times a week.
  • Let your loved ones know. One of my favourite stories about practising silence is from the life of Susanna Wesley (mother to John Charles and seventeen others). In her chaotic home, the only place Susanna could find to be silent with God was on a kitchen chair with her apron thrown over her head. She trained her children to know that if she was sitting in that chair with her apron over her head that she was in prayer and not be disturbed unless death was imminent for one of them. You may find that a sign on the door or wall that lets family know that you are not to be disturbed can be helpful.
  • Put your phone on silent or Do Not Disturb - just remember to check your messages later.
  • Be gracious with yourself. Silence is not a skill that comes easily (especially for those of us who build our worlds in words). On those days when words seem to take over - be kind to yourself and plan to practice silence again the next day.
  • Oh, and one last thing, sometimes I have discovered that silence needs a background track. There are days when the obstacle to silence I face are the random noises in my street or building. On those days, I have found that playing quiet instrumental music (or even white noise) can be the difference between me being able to listen and being totally distracted.

How do I know if I am hearing God?

Most of the time, God speaks not in an audible, external voice but in a whisper in our hearts, which can sometimes leave us in doubt about the validity of what we hear. I have found three things really helpful here. First - I ask God - "is this you, God?" I ask him to remind me of scriptures that confirm that what I am hearing is consistent with his word and character. Then I remember that Jesus tells his disciples in John 10: 4 that "his sheep know his voice." In John 14:26, Jesus also tells us that part of the Holy Spirit's role is to remind us of what he says so we can rely on the fact that he will help us recognise his voice. Finally, I talk to people I trust. They help me identify what is God's voice and what is my own.

Silence is still a choice I have to make every day. Now that life is busier, it can be easy to leave silence for later, to say I have too much to do, but the rhythms and sounds of silence that I built up in my days of isolation are still of immense value. So now I am working out how to keep practising them amid this now noisy world.

How do you feel about silence?


[i] Calhoun, Adele A. Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2005. Kindle

Photo by Boba Jovanovic on Unsplash

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K is an Aussie transplant who has lived in North India for the last two decades. Her biggest buzz comes from being able to help others to learn and to enjoy a deeper relationship with Jesus. K can frequently be found in one of the cafes in her adopted home city drinking hot chocolate since real decaf coffee has yet to make its way to India.

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