A quiet & attentive spirit: start your day with restful silence.
Weary of my meagre prayer life, needing to know God in j a new way, I signed up for an eight-day silent prayer retreat a few years ago. I sensed the need to retreat from the regular patterns of my life in order to find a space where I might be more receptive to God's grace. I was mostly looking for some peace and quiet and never expected that it would be one of the more transformative experiences of my life.
The spiritual practice of silence is simple: you shut up. You quiet your outer world, removing the many distractions from life, turning down the volume on all the talk and noise around you.
It is stilling both the actual and internal noise of life.
Simple, yes, but to be honest the spiritual practice of silence is one of the more forbidding disciplines for our day. It is a prophetic practice because it challenges our cultural way of being, which is to fill our day with the babel of chatter, noise, alarms and information. Silence insists on patience, on quiet, unproductive waiting. We don't like that so our instinctive response to silence is to fill it up with something to distract or entertain, something to learn or achieve. We have become addicts to noise and distraction.
The countercultural practice of silence is aimed at freeing ourselves from this addiction so we might be present to the Lord, to open ourselves to God in the place beyond words. It is aimed at encountering Jesus who is already in the silence before we enter it; to hear him speak to us, to notice his presence and receive his love.
The biggest takeaway from my silent retreat was the simplest and sweetest. It was the experienced knowledge that Christ lives in me. I encountered him, communed with him, and heard his voice of love. What I had long been taught, I tasted. Psalm 46:10 says: "Be still, and know that I am God." So often we are unaware of God's presence because we haven't quieted down. Be still and know that--in a real, honest, experiential way.
Yet silence's sweet reward is demanding. The trouble with turning down the volume on our mouths is that every other sound seems cranked up. At the retreat centre, a woman upstairs was making a lot of noise. Helped out by a squeaky floor, it sounded like she was doing laps in her room and led me to think mostly bad thoughts about her.
And here lies silence's biggest challenge--in the quiet we encounter ourselves, all those movements of the heart we regularly dodge in all the noise of life. During my retreat, it quickly revealed a judgmental underbelly in me. But this is its important work. Silence is like the frost heave of the soul. The cold contraction of earth regularly hoists to the surface rocks and stones. Silence has this same habit, lifting subterranean rubble to the surface of our lives that we need to confess and clear out. No wonder we fill our lives with noise and distraction.
Deluged as we are by sound and information, we hardly realize the need for quiet in our lives. In our culture, silence is one of the most vital practices for cultivating the life of Christ, especially for people of the Word, people of the book. We need to be quiet in order to listen and yet we so rarely take the time to simply be quiet.
Experiencing silence is not a practice for mystics and a few spiritual elite but meant for all God's people. You need not go on a retreat (which I would nonetheless encourage you to try) but perhaps you can set aside a half-day for silence. Or it can be as simple as not putting in your earbuds during your workout or turning off the radio during your morning commute. But do cultivate intentional times and places of quiet. You can build them into your regular devotions, simply by starting with a few moments of restful silence. Or try this: for the time it takes to drink your morning coffee, spend that time, with coffee in hand, in quiet.
Silence is not a practice to empty ourselves but to clear away the clutter and distraction of life so that we might attend to what is most precious, the living word of God in Jesus.
By Phil Reinders
Rev. Phil Reinders is minister at Knox, Toronto, and author of Seeking God's Face: Praying with the Bible Through the Year.