Being Merciful with Ourselves
We need silence in our lives. We even desire it. But when we enter into silence we encounter a lot of inner noises, often so disturbing that a busy and distracting life seems preferable to a time of silence. Two disturbing “noises” present themselves quickly in our silence: the noise of lust and the noise of anger. Lust reveals our many unsatisfied needs, anger our many unresolved relationships. But lust and anger are very hard to face.
What are we to do? Jesus says, “Go and learn the meaning of the words: Mercy is what pleases me, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13). Sacrifice here means “offering up,” “cutting out,” “burning away,” or “killing.” We shouldn’t do that with our lust and anger. It simply won’t work. But we can be merciful toward our own noisy selves and turn these enemies into friends.
Being Silent Makes Us Feel Helpless
One reason we can hardly bear to remain silent is that it makes us feel so helpless. We are so accustomed to relying upon words to manage and control others. If we are silent, who will take control? God will take control, but we will never let him take control until we trust him. Silence is intimately related to trust. The tongue is our most powerful weapon of manipulation. A frantic stream of words flows from us because we are in a constant process of adjusting our public image.
We fear so deeply what we think other people see in us that we talk in order to straighten out their understanding. If I have done some wrong thing (or even some right thing that I think you may misunderstand) and discover that you know about it, I will be very tempted to help you understand my action! Silence is one of the deepest disciplines of the Spirit simply because it puts the stopper on all self-justification.
My entry into solitude often feels like the hard landing of an aircraft that this flight attendant humorously describes: “Ladies and gentlemen, please remain in your seats until Captain Crash and the crew have brought the aircraft to a screeching halt against the gate. And once the tire smoke has cleared and the warning bells are silenced, we’ll open the door and you can pick your way through the wreckage to the terminal.” When life is as noisy and fast-paced as mine, it feels as if my approach to solitude involves slamming to a screeching halt.
The smoke of clutter and distraction billows around me, and warning bells sound, telling me that I have been in a bit of danger and it’s a good thing I’m on the ground. Picking my way through the wreckage of external distractions, I stumble off the plane into the presence of the One who has been waiting for me to arrive, the One who loves me no matter what kind of disheveled shape I am in and is so glad I’ve made it home.
God’s Voice Speaking through the Frustration
My first conscious experience of hearing the voice of Jesus occurred when I was a college student. It grew out of a period of genuine frustration. Because of my poor academic training and a less-than-stellar intellect, it seemed I had to study harder than everyone else if I was to succeed in college. On top of that I was carrying two part-time jobs to bring in enough money to put food on the table and to buy books. My first job was at a
cannery on the cleanup crew after the night shift.
I worked from four to six each morning steam-cleaning the machinery, and I got back to the college just in time to wash dishes at the dining commons, my second job. It was a perfect schedule, for I could do all of this before my first class began at eight a.m.
Then too I was doing some service work at a local church … oh, and I was involved in student government…all of which made for a heavy load for a young college sophomore. Still, I believed each of these tasks was important for several reasons: to earn needed money, to hone my speaking skills and to interact with the lives of precious people.
But they left little time for the leisure and social activities that seemed to be such a large part of other student’s lives. And I was frustrated at my seeming loss. One evening I was taking a stretch break from study, walking out in the night. Soon I began speaking prayers of complaint … a little like the lament psalms in the Bible. I wasn’t angry, really, just frustrated. They were “poor me” kinds of prayers. My walking took me into nearby woods and, as I walked along by the light of the moon, my complaining prayers began to diminish and I became more and more quiet.
Finally, I fell into total silence. A still, listening silence. It was then that God spoke, spoke out of the stillness and into my frustration. You know how we are able to distinguish between human speakers by the quality of their voice, the spirit in their voice and, of course, the content of what is being said? It is much the same with the divine voice.
A Gripping Lecture
Charles Babbage (1792-1871) was a British mathematician and inventor known for his enjoyment of talking. At one particular dinner, Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish polymath was going on and on about the virtues of silence, leaving little room for anyone else to get a word in edgewise. At the end of the dinner Babbage approached Carlyle and thanked him sternly for his stirring lecture on the topic of silence.
Stuart Strachan Jr.
Hearing Jesus in Silence
One of the early saints who emphasized the place of silence in spiritual life was Saint Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, who died a martyr late in the first century. In a letter written shortly before his death, he wrote, “He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence.”
How God Speaks
While there is a common assumption in church circles that God speaks most frequently and the clearest through singing worship and heart-enlivened sermons, I find the context of speechless tranquility to be a more common ground for God-messaging than any activity with noise, no matter how holy the words. This is the “Be still” part of “Be still and know that I am God” which goes on to say, “…and I will be exalted in the earth.” (Psalm 46:10) According to the psalmist, God is praised in our practice of stillness and silence.
From all I have read and learned about God, His greatest desire is to share space and consciousness with us through conversation and friendship. A willingness to practice silence and solitude in our daily affairs as well as in intentional times of quiet can lead to an intimate awareness of God’s presence regardless of the activity we happen to doing at the time.
Archelaus the 5th century (BC) king of Macedon, was once having his hair cut. His barber, quite verbose like many others in his profession, asked King Archelaus how he would like his hair cut. His response, “In silence.”
Stuart Strachan Jr.
An Invitation To Find our Hearts
Holy silence is spacious and inviting. You can drink it down…During congregational silences, in meditation rooms or halls, in prison cells and meeting rooms, in silent confession at church, all these screwed-up people like us, with tangled lives and minds, find their hearts opening through quiet focus.
Keeping Faith in the Silence
In her compelling memoir Still Life, author Gillian Marchenko recounts her struggles with depression:
Yes, but what about Jesus?” friends ask later on. It is a valid question. If others look at my life, I hope they’ll see that faith is important. I believe in the story that some people let waft through their minds only at Christmas: that Christ was born of a virgin, lived a perfect life, died a death we all deserve, so that we can have a bridge to God. Sergei is a minister.
I spent years as a missionary in a foreign country. The point of my faith is that God came to me so that I can be with him. What about Jesus? I think. When depression takes over, everyone in my life falls away, including him. I can’t pray, or read, or talk. When I am not stuck in a pocket of depression, I pray for help and healing. “Take this away, or at least help me figure out how to handle it better,” I whisper, expectant. But a concrete response doesn’t come. All I get is silence. How does one keep faith in silence?
The Power of Silence in a Prayerful Life
The Desert Saint John Climacus focused heavily on the role of silence in the life of prayer. In his guidebook to the spiritual life, he had this to say:
Intelligent silence is the mother of prayer, freedom from bondage, custodian of zeal, a guard on our thoughts, a watch on our enemies, a prison of mourning, a friend of tears, a sure recollection of death, a painter of punishment, a concern with judgment, servant of anguish, foe of license, a companion of stillness, the opponent of dogmatism, a growth of knowledge, a hand to shape contemplation, hidden progress, the secret journey upward.
Silence in Scripture
Somebody should write a book someday about the silences in Scripture. Maybe somebody already has. “For God alone my soul waits in silence,” the psalmist says (62:1), which is the silence of waiting. Or “Be not silent, O God of my praise,” which is the silence of the God we wait for (109:1). “And when the Lamb opened the seventh seal,” says the book of Revelation, “there was silence in heaven” (8: I)—the silence of creation itself coming to an end and of a new creation about to begin.
But the silence that has always most haunted me is the silence of Jesus before Pilate. Pilate asks his famous question, “What is truth?” (John 18:38), and Jesus answers him with a silence that is overwhelming in its eloquence. In case there should be any question as to what that silence meant, on another occasion Jesus put it into words for his disciple Thomas. “I,” he said, “I am the truth” (14:6).
Frederick Buechner in “The Truth of Stories” originally from The Clown in the Belfry , Harper Collins Publishing.
Reflecting on Shusaku Endo’s Novel and Film, Silence
In Silence, Shusaku Endo writes of the journey of Portuguese Jesuits journeying to Japan. It is a conversation about those who intend to take the path of Jesus, only to find they are on the path of Judas. It elevates a faith lived out in real world struggle, over the theological proclamations of the ivory tower.
Silence deals with the public space in which faith is lived out. It is a myth that the Christian faith is a private one—Christian faith is embodied at the shared table, the community of worship, the proclamation of faith, and baptism.
In a subtle way, the public expression of faith is often taken as a reflection of the inner state of faith. What outward and individualized signs do we use to legitimize a person’s faith–the ability to sign the right faith statement, the doctrinal alignments, association with certain communities of faith, a stance on a current issue. Silence challenges the ability for outward expressions, to adequately reflect internal faith. But it also calls us to interrogate the idea of an individualized faith.
Silence introduces readers to some of the eternal questions of faith that transcend cultures and peoples. But embedded in the work are powerful observations that challenge the cultural assumptions that we accidentally bring, unknowingly, and overlay onto the faith.
Acting without reflecting on the implications of our cultural point of view to our expressions of faith can be dangerous, even deadly. And it is this much needed space for cultural reflection that Silence provides brilliantly.
The Silence of God
In the deeply moving novel Silence by Shusaku Endo, the protagonist, a young Jesuit priest named Sebastião Rodrigues describes in horror what it is like to watch two of his disciples, Japanese nationals Mokichi and Ichizo, become martyrs for their faith. Instead of being an inspiration, perhaps as he would have hoped, Rodrigues experiences the deep darkness of doubt and God’s silence:
The martyrdom of the Japanese Christians I now describe to you was no such glorious thing. What a miserable and painful business it was! The rain falls unceasingly on the sea. And the sea which killed them surges on uncannily—in silence….What do I want to say? I myself do not quite understand. Only that today, when for the glory of God Mokichi and Ichizo moaned, suffered and died, 1 cannot bear the monotonous sound of the dark sea gnawing at the shore. Behind the depressing silence of this sea, the silence of God…the feeling that while men raise their voices in anguish God remains with folded arms, silent.
Sitting in Silence
I know a spiritual director who begins each of her sessions with five to ten minutes of silence. Sitting in silence is a new experience for many, and she told me that during these few minutes nearly everyone with whom she meets begins to cry. Most often they don’t have words to explain why, but in that empty stillness the muted sorrow that we each bear spills from their eyes.
Taken from Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep by Tish Harrison Warren Copyright (c) 2021 by Tish Harrison Warren. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
This Constant Bickering
The monks at a remote monastery deep in the woods followed a rigid vow of silence. Their vow could only be broken once a year—on Christmas—by one monk. That monk could speak only one sentence. One Christmas, Brother Thomas had his turn to speak and said, “I love the delightful mashed potatoes we have every year with the Christmas roast!” Then he sat down. Silence ensued for 365 days.
The next Christmas, Brother Michael got his turn and said, “I think the mashed potatoes are lumpy, and I truly despise them!” Once again, silence ensued for 365 days.
The following Christmas, Brother Paul rose and said, “I am fed up with this constant bickering!”
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A Visitor In A Household Of Tranquil Prayer
Archbishop Theophilus of Alexandria, one of the principal cities of the ancient world, once traveled to the monastic colony at Skete in the Egyptian desert. The younger monks were distressed that their elder, Abbot Pambo, had nothing to say to their august and powerful visitor. “Say a word or two to the bishop,” they urged him, “that his soul may be edified in this place.” Abbot Pambo replied: “If he is not edified by my silence, there is no hope that he will be edified by my words.”
One can imagine that Archbishop Theophilus, a man who had heard endless words from the many people courting his attention, returned to Alexandria shaken by his encounter with a community of men who had completely resigned from chatter. The monks made no effort to convince him of anything or win any favors. For the length of his stay, their august guest was simply a fellow Christian who, in a climate of silence, found himself freed from the heavy burden of being an Important Person with all the words and gestures that importance involves. He was a visitor in a household of tranquil prayer. The monks bathed him in their own quietness.
There was once a court case that was lost because of the silence of an attorney. The distinguished lawyer Samuel Hoar (1778-1856) was representing the defendant. When it was time to present his case, he told the jurors that the facts favoring his client were so evident that he would not insult their intelligence by arguing them. The jury retired to deliberate and returned in a few minutes with a verdict of guilty. Samuel Hoar was astonished!
“How,” he asked, “could you have reached such a verdict?”
The foreman replied, “We all agreed that if anything could be said for a case, you would say it. But since you didn’t present any evidence, we decided to rule against you.” Silence had lost the case.
How often the opportunity to speak a word of testimony for Christ is lost because we remain silent. Those who need to hear the gospel may conclude that salvation is not important enough to talk about.
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Silence. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!