I have been discussing the silence at length in my congregation. Through this past summer, we have incorporated intentional silence in our Sunday worship, using silent, focused prayer in the place of the regular prayers of intercession. At the same time, we have begun our parallel community, The Still, Small Voice, which is a group that is shaped by the practices of meditation and contemplation. If you are ever in Falmouth on a Saturday, come join us at 4:00 p.m.
I have had discussions about silence with members of my congregation, with clergy colleagues and with unsuspecting members of the public who innocently inquired about what it is that I do. The reaction has been mixed. For some, silence is such a foreign concept, especially in the modern church arena, that pursuing it can be relegated to that odd, niche market of the introverted mystic. For others, silence can play a minor role in the life of the church but, especially among Lutherans who give great value to the preaching office, silence can never compare with a well-crafted sermon or a lofty hymn.
But then there are those who have taken part in silent practices of one form or another. It may have been in a religious context or a stress-relief seminar, but they had the experience of allowing themselves to be still. They are often surprised that there is a Christian tradition around silence; that to be still can be a way of seeking the presence of God and that practicing silence is part of ancient church practice.
As much as I have come to appreciate silence and have begun to see silence as a transformative practice for the church, I feel like I should say that silence is not the answer to everything that ails us. We live in a society that is divided over many issues and where extreme views are often the loudest voices. We live in a culture that continues to struggle around racial equality and justice. We live in a church that is anxious about its own decline and questions its own relevance.
Silence is not the answer to these problems. Silence does not resolve conflicts. It does not share the full breadth of the promise of the good news. Silence in and of itself does not feed the hungry, advocate for justice or create understanding. Intentional silence could easily devolve into liturgical naval-gazing. The world may be going to hell around us, but at least we are calm, finding the ripe strawberry between the tiger and the cliff (as the Buddhist story goes).
If through the practice of silence we are able to develop calmer and more peaceful lives, this would be a good start, but only a start. At some point we are called to break our silence, to give witness to the peace we experience; to go out and share this peace (or shalom or the good news or the reign of God) with the world around us. We are sent to live in the presence of God just as we have sat in the presence of God in contemplation.
Silence is an excellent preparation for this journey. It allows for a rebooting of our minds so that we can look at world with renewed perspective. In silence we learn to listen, so we can actually be in dialogue with another rather than simply talking over one another. In silence we learn compassion, to be aware of God’s immeasurable love for all people which might send us to carry out that love in word and action. Silence teaches us to be patient, so that we can respond mindfully to what ails our lives rather than living from gut-reaction to gut-reaction.
Yet none of this matters if we fail to get beyond the silence. In the gospel stories, Jesus sometimes went by himself to pray and invited his followers to pray in secret. He did not remain in retreat, nor did he favor being in retreat over being in the world. Jesus went by himself to pray so that he could return to his ministry to and for the world.
Silence is not the answer to everything, but it is a place to begin our answers. Find God in silence and accompany God into the complexities of life. Listen for God in silence and then be part of God’s answer to a hurting world.