The following was written for Self Talk The Gospel as a part of a series on Spiritual Disciplines.
Though I don’t remember many specifics from Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence by Ruth Haley Barton, one phrase has stayed with me.
Stirred up river water.
Ruth is an active go-getter and was once described by her spiritual director as living her life like a jar of stirred up river water. She recommended building in silence and solitude as ways to “quiet the stirred up river water” within her, allowing it to settle.
I don’t know about you, but my river water could use some settling too.
Fortuitously after I had chosen this practice for the month of February, we had a sermon about silence. You can bet I took notes! Pastor Olivia shared something Pascal said.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
Well now, that one hits a bit too close to home. I can sit and read or sit and do things on my phone. But just sit, not really my strong point. Won’t the time drag? Will it be boring? The pastor explained that silence is not a time to sit with a verse or sit and pray. Instead, silence is about being, not doing.
In silence you listen to God and as the pastor said, “allow God to borough deep in our souls, watering and tending to truths he’s planted.”
I decided to spend five minutes a day practicing silence. Five might not sound like much, but I knew if I picked more time I wouldn’t actually do it. My “silence” muscles are weak so instead of doing a marathon, I thought I’d sign up for a spiritual 5K. And am I ever glad I did!
Okay, let’s start with what I learned won’t work. You cannot practice silence by puttering around the kitchen making a cup of tea. True, it might be silent around you, but silence needs to be practiced without a task involved, so either sitting or maybe wandering. Since it’s February I can’t report on wandering walks outside, but I can say, shoveling snow was more peaceful than normal.
What others have said is dead on: when you sit down to practice silence it takes a while for your mind to settle down. My thoughts were humorously random. A friend going through a divorce, how much I love spiritual memories, is that the furnace? I wonder what time it is. And on and on. But as I slowly ignored them and said, “God, I’m listening.” I could sense a shift happen in my torso (If this all sounds freaky weird to you, know I’m more likely to be found cheering at a ball game than communing with nature, I’m merely reporting on what happened within my body).
The shift came with quieted thoughts and a sense of the presence of God.
Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices. (Psalm 37:7)
Silence isn’t like going to a vending machine and knowing what you’re going to get if you put in your time and press D3 or B5 and out pops the candy bar or soda you selected. One day God talked with me about the trinity. Another I had a picture of taller stick figure walking with a shorter one and knew it was God and me.
It wasn’t all theologically deep and rich. One day I said, “I’m listening” and God said, “That’s good.” And we sat there. How’s that for profound.
I noticed over the month I grew more comfortable being with God, and not having to have any kind of agenda (i.e. someone to pray for or a Bible study to do or thank you cards to write). We sat like people who enjoy being together and don’t always have to talk.
The practice of silence has also been described this way: “Resting in the presence of God, without work or speech, so one becomes more aware of the companionship, grace and love of God than one has been of the companionship, demands, and duties associated with other people.” (Brian Mclaren)
As I’ve tasted this companionship, grace and love this month, I’ve also noticed a shift in the demands and duties. I’m less stirred up and when I do get stirred up, I’m able to settle a bit quicker. And this might be the biggest takeaway for me. This practice isn’t about the five minutes in the quiet of the morning, though I do enjoy them! Instead, as I’ve built these “silence” muscles, I can tap into them at other times of the day.
Life comes with some “shaken up river water.” Silence, even little moments, routinely practiced in the quiet of the day can be tapped into later, in the less quiet moments.
If you’re not familiar with this practice, I’d invite you to try it. Don’t be surprised when your thoughts bounce from one absurd thing to another, they’ll quiet down. You’re not “bad” at silence, you’re normal. It turns out that just as we enjoy being around those we love, so does God.
For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. (Psalm 62:5)
“Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” (Psalm 46:10)