Silence and the Spiritual Life

Christ in Silence by Odilon Redon

Habakkuk 2:20 (NRSV)
But the Lord is in his holy temple;
let all the earth keep silence before him!

Ideas of value always shun verbosity, being foreign to confusion and fantasy. Timely silence, then, is precious, for it is nothing less than the mother of the wisest thoughts.
– Diadochus

Psalm 46:10 (NRSV)
Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.

As ministers our greatest temptation is toward too many words. They weaken our faith and make us lukewarm. But silence is a sacred discipline, a guard of the Holy Spirit.
– Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart.

The “prayer of quiet” is a most simple and universal path. Of all the religious rituals and practices I know of, nothing will lead us to that place of nakedness and vulnerability more than regular experiences of solitude and silence, where our ego identity falls away, where our explanations don’t mean anything, where our superiority doesn’t matter and we have to sit there in our naked “who-ness.” If God wants to get through to us, and the Trinitarian Flow wants to come alive in us, that’s when God has the best chance. – Richard Rohr

We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass- grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence… We need silence to be able to touch souls. – Mother Teresa

Extended quote from Praying in the Messiness of Life by Linda Douty
Most of us begin the spiritual journey using our natural methods of unconscious control. We decide when and where to attend worship, what scriptures to read, for whom we shall pray, what inspiring speaker to listen to, and what books to read. We are accustomed to being in the driver’s seat – making good decisions and directing the journey.

However, befriending the silence is

  • more about yielding than controlling,
  • more about loosening than grasping,
  • more about participating than directing,
  • more about allowing than managing.

When we submit to emptiness and silence, we take our hands off the wheel and relinquish control to the Holy Spirit. … When we aren’t busy controlling things, it is possible simply to become attentive – discovering our truest selves in the mystery of silence as we learn this special language of God.

Extended quote from Gathered in the Word by Norvene Vest
The balance of word and silence is incredibly difficult for us to sustain because our culture is so oriented toward word and so ignorant of silence. Wherever we go, noise bombards us: elevators, shopping malls, offices, waiting on the telephone, car radios — everywhere!

Most of us have little or no experience of silence, and we may find it disturbing or alien. One minute of silence in a public meeting, even at church, can seem intolerably long. We seem to think that silence is the absence of something, and our nature abhors a vacuum. Yet we might wonder whether our near-frantic efforts to surround ourselves with noise suggest a deeper fear — that silence is the presence of something so powerful that it is to be feared.

Yet silence is essential for listening. How awkward to try to have a serious conversation with someone wearing earphones! How hard to communicate a message to one wielding a leaf blower! How impossible to reach someone absorbed in a television program! In any relationship there must be listening for there to be communication, and that is no less true of our relationship with God than any other.

Psalm 62:1-7 (NRSV)
For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken. How long will you assail a person, will you batter your victim, all of you, as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence? Their only plan is to bring down a person of prominence. They take pleasure in falsehood; they bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse. (Selah) For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.

Extended quote from No Man is an Island by Thomas Merton
We cannot be happy if we expect to live all the time at the highest peak of intensity. Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance and order and rhythm and harmony.

Music is pleasing not only because of the sound but because of the silence that is in it: without the alternation of sound and silence there would be no rhythm. If we strive to be happy by filling all the silences of life with sound, productive by turning all life’s leisure into work, and real by turning all our being into doing, we will only succeed in producing a hell on earth.

If we have no silence, God is not heard in our music. If we have no rest, God does not bless our work. If we twist our lives out of shape in order to fill every corner of them with action and experience, God will silently withdraw from our hearts and leave us empty.

Let us, therefore, learn to pass from one imperfect activity to another without worrying too much about what we are missing.

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