The Sound of Silence


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Spiritual disciplines such as scripture reading and prayer are familiar to most Christians. However, but the disciplines of silence and solitude are not. Living in a media-saturated, technologically inter-connected world, the idea of self-imposed silence and solitude is foreign and uncomfortable to most of us.

These practices, however, were a regular part of Jesus’ spiritual life. For example, the gospel of Mark reports that “very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” [1] Jesus had spent the previous evening healing people and he must have been exhausted. When his disciples sought after Jesus and finally found him, they said, “Everyone is looking for you!" At this point Jesus told his disciples that instead of staying with the crowds, they would go to another place. [2] This habit of retiring to solitary places is one Jesus evidently sought to instill in his disciples. After they spent time with the crowds Jesus invited his disciples to "Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest." [3] Mark 6:32 tells us, “So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place.”

This pattern of retreating to silent places makes sense in light of some Old Testament passages that describe God speaking to people. 1 Samuel 3:1-10 tells the account of the prophet Samuel when he was a young boy. While he was serving in the temple, God spoke to Samuel for the first time, but Samuel did not recognize God’s voice, mistaking it instead for the voice of Eli. When Samuel finally realizes who is actually speaking to him he replies, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

1 Kings 19:11-13 recounts the experience of another prophet, Elijah. In this story Elijah, after his triumph over the priests of Baal, flees for his life. He runs to a mountain and hides in a cave. God calls out to Elijah and Elijah goes out to the mouth of the cave.

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. [4]

The text continues and says that after all this, came “A gentle whisper.” This gentle voice was the voice of God. Evidently, this is the voice that Jesus was listening for as he retired to solitary places. “Solitude and silence are for prayer,” writes Henri Nouwen,

The Desert Fathers did not think of solitude as being alone, but as being alone with God. They did not think of silence as not speaking, but as listening to God. Solitude and silence are the context within which prayer is practiced. [5]

Nouwen offers other thoughtful insights on silence and solitude in this book The Way of the Heart. According to Nouwen, solitude is the place where human character is transformed; it is the “furnace of transformation”. Silence is where God speaks. The two greatest enemies to these two practices are busyness and noise. We are immersed in both constantly, and according to Nouwen, both are ways we avoid dealing with our real selves and our real issues. They are our ways of hiding, but solitude strips away all our pretenses. Nouwen writes:

In solitude I get rid of my scaffolding: no friends to talk with, no telephone calls to make, no meetings to attend, no music to entertain, no books to distract, just me—naked, vulnerable, weak, sinful, deprived, broken—nothing… As soon as I decide to stay in my solitude, confusing ideas, disturbing images, wild fantasies, and weird associations jump about in my mind like monkeys in a banana tree. [6]

In other words, it is when we are alone that our real selves become evident. As the deep brokenness of our own lives become evident, we also begin to realize the true nature of God’s unconditional, agape love. We turn to God for healing and help. Nouwen writes,

The encounter with Christ does not take place before, after, or beyond the struggle with our false self and its demons. No, it is precisely in the midst of this struggle that our Lord comes to us. [7]

It is encountering this gracious God in our brokenness that truly transforms us. It is “From this transformed or converted self that real ministry flows.” [8] It also fills our hearts with compassion, instead of a judgmental spirit. Nouwen observes,

Compassion if the fruit of solitude and the basis for all ministry…Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken.[9]

He continues,

What becomes visible here is that solitude molds self-righteous people into gentle, caring, forgiving persons who are so deeply convinced of their own great sinfulness and so fully aware of God’s even greater mercy that their life itself becomes ministry. [10]

Nouwen’s analysis brings two scriptural texts to mind, one from the Old Testament and the other from the Gospels. In the first God uses the prophet Isaiah to speak to Israel at a critical point in its history as a nation. A foreign nation with a superior army is planning to attack Israel, and Israel does what seems to be practically savvy. The people frantically make plans, turning to Egypt for help. But God is not pleased, and through his prophet Isaiah he gives the real solution. He says ,"In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength…” [11] Like the Israelites, it is by hearing the voice of God over our own plans that we find strength and wisdom to face the real world.

The second text that comes to mind is Jesus’ comment to Martha in the Gospel of Luke. In this passage Jesus has been invited to the home of Martha, who is frantically making preparations for her guests. Martha’s sister Mary, however, is found sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to him. Martha, needless to say, is very frustrated by this. She approaches Jesus and demands that he rebuke her sister and get her to help. Jesus replies, however, by saying, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” [12] This episode illustrates that for Jesus, activity, even the “good” kind of activity, is not the ultimate end of the Christian life. Rather, it is fellowship. As Nouwen puts it, (speaking from the context of ministry), “The goal of our life is not people. It is God.” [13]

Silence and solitude, then, are two disciplines that foster this fellowship with God. By their practice we become aware of our own weakness, but more importantly, we become aware of God’s grace and his power. Silence and solitude are indispensible as they direct our activity, making us more effective people. Therefore we must, as Nouwen suggests, be intentional about creating “desert spaces” in our lives.

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[1] Mark 1:35 [2] Mark 1:38, 39 [3] Mark 6:31 [4] 1 Samuel 3:11-12a [5] Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, p. 69. [6] Ibid., 27 [7] Ibid., 30. [8] Ibid., 20. [9] Ibid., 34. [10] Ibid., 37 [11] Isaiah 30:15 [12] Luke 10:41-42 [13] Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, p. 40.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2403