Silence is hard to find in our culture. Our homes are filled with the whining of kitchen appliances, the clanking of exercise equipment, and the beeping of computers. People carry their own boom boxes. Cars play stereos at top volume. Neighborhoods are filled with power lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and snow blowers. City streets sport garbage trucks, jackhammers, and backfiring buses. Whistles blow, sirens shriek, horns honk, and helicopters fly overhead. Stores play music continually, people talk through movies and concerts, and cell phones ring in church.
We long for silence, and yet we are afraid of silence. For when the outer world is quiet, we begin to hear our inner noise. Our heads are filled with chatter, our hearts with emotions. We replay history and rehearse the future. We wander away from the present moment by making lists, or planning supper, or anticipating an argument, or remembering who said what to whom at yesterday’s meeting. In the silence we begin to realize that we are everywhere but here.
Another reason some people are afraid of silence is because they have been wounded by it. Most of us have been told at some time: “Keep quiet!” “Shhhhh.” “Lower your voice.” “Shut up!” Silence can be used in relationships as a weapon. “When my wife is angry with me, she gives me ‘the silent treatment.’ I don’t know what I have done, and I feel uneasy and on edge,” one man reported. A young woman shared that her father used to clam up, not speak during dinner, not wish her goodnight. Her father’s silence frightened her because it was usually followed by an explosion of anger. Another woman remembered the silence of a friend that was hurtful: “My friend would get quiet and then just walk away and leave me if I said something to displease her.”
For people who have been wounded by silence, solitary silence may be comfortable, but silence in community feels too close to painful memories. Listen to these brief stories from a silent retreat: “Eating in silence with others is still very uncomfortable for me, even after three days. It is too much like the meals in my family of origin, where everyone was afraid to speak.” “When I sit down next to someone and they don’t speak to me, I feel rejected, even though I know that no one is talking to anyone.” “When we are together in the kitchen, I feel an almost compulsive urge to fill the silence with chatter. I think I am looking for the approval I never got from my mother.”
Another way silence frightens us is that silence makes us vulnerable. Although words can be used to build relationships if we share from the depths of who we are, frequently words are used to defend ourselves, to protect ourselves from intimacy. “I use words to attack,” an attorney told me. “When I am silent, I feel I have no protection, no weapon. I am vulnerable and I feel weak.” When we talk constantly and fill the silence with words, we do not need to listen or relate. When we are silent with another, we may hear that person’s pain and sorrow; we may witness that person’s wonder and joy. Such heartfelt listening moves us toward intimacy, and intimacy makes us vulnerable.
Those of us who use words in our teaching, preaching, and writing can also fear silence because we believe ourselves to be defined by language. We become identified with the spoken or written word. We are expected to be able to offer a meaningful closing prayer at the end of a gathering. We are asked for articulate summaries of long discussions. Our words of wisdom are eagerly awaited. People wonder if they can quote us. We begin to think we are our words. “I was afraid of silence because I believed I was loved for my words,” a published writer reported. “I was afraid that without words I would not be loved. What a joy to experience deep regard from others without saying a word.”
Our past experiences with silence will influence the way we respond to silence. Our personality type may also affect our response to silence. “Sometimes it is said that introverts long for silence and solitude, and extroverts flee silence and solitude,” wrote Reuben Job in his book Spiritual Life in the Congregation. The invitation to silence may elicit these responses initially, but both personality types can learn to receive the gift of silence. A highly extroverted retreatant wrote that she had feared that she would not be able to maintain silence and might negatively affect the participation of others; however, she “found the silence to be welcoming, comforting, and rich with inner growth.” An introverted retreatant also made a delightful discovery in the silent community: “I am an introvert by definition; that is, I restore my energy alone. But I love relationships as well. This experience afforded me the best of all worlds.”
Fruits of Silence
When silence is practiced in a safe community, healing can occur. People understand that the silence is not commanded, nor is it a punishment. It holds no secrets. People begin to look at one another without words between them and learn what it is to truly see and be seen. “The silence of this retreat offered me a safe place to experience a deep prevailing sadness for which I had no words,” a student reflected. “The raw recollection of being silenced over the years began to feel personally tragic. Memories prevailed of people protecting themselves with cynicism, body language, ‘the silent treatment,’ ridicule, humor and ‘put-downs.’ The contemplative atmosphere freed me and inspired me. We became an intimate group sharing our mutual intent to listen to God.”
With healing comes the possibility of embracing silence and allowing silence to embrace us so that we can turn our attention to God. Silence can be a vehicle for paying attention to God because often we discover God through our senses, which come alive in silence. We seem to see and hear more clearly the created world around us. We also see and hear each other on deeper levels.
When we do not need to share our experience, point it out to another, explain it, or expound upon it, we can simply be with whatever is happening and know it to be a gift from God. When we notice and pay attention to unpleasant things, such as a memory that hurts, the sight of litter, the sounds of an argument, the smell of pollution, or the continual barking of a dog, we can also practice gratitude for any new awareness we receive. “I was so annoyed by that ticking clock when I first arrived,” a retreatant shared, “I wanted to rip it off the wall. But I became aware of how often small and unimportant things frustrate me and stir up my anger, so I practiced embracing the clock as part of my retreat experience. I am now rather fond of it.”
Words that grow in silence seem to be more intentional and come from a deeper place within. In silence we can find a truer voice and discover what we want to say. We find ways to speak that communicate and connect rather than fill space, defend, or confuse. This balance of silence and speech builds community. People experience deep connection with each other, even though they know very little about the lives of one another. A bond is created within the group that grows from silence, intentional speech, and the shared experience of attending to God.
Adapted from Be Still: Designing and Leading Contemplative Retreats, copyright © 2000 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce, go toour permissions form.
Be Still: Designing and Leading Contemplative Retreats by Jane E. Vennard
Many people long for a deeper relationship with God, yearning for silence in a noisy world and a respite from busyness. Written for lay and ordained leaders who wish to bring the gift of space and silence to members who feel called to the contemplative journey, this book introduces the purpose of retreats, provides a theological and biblical understanding of the model, and offers guidance for designing and leading these gatherings.
A Praying Congregation: The Art of Teaching Spiritual Practice by Jane E. Vennard
Pastors and others who want to develop their skills as teachers of prayer and spiritual practices will find in this book not only wisdom for themselves but easily accessible lesson plans, so that they can share Vennard’s insights with others while infusing the activities with their own spirit and creative ideas. Through this book, readers’ hearts are made ready to explore the wonder of strengthening their relationship with God through prayer.