Why Be Silent?

Hearing God's Voice in the Quiet

Written By Margaret W. Jones

One of the elders said: "Just as it is impossible
to see your face in troubled water,
so also the soul, unless it is clear of alien thoughts,
is not able to pray to God in contemplation."

—from Illuminated Life, Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light
by Joan Chittister

Recently I was invited to lead an out-of-town retreat. I agreed, and began to discuss plans for it with the woman who issued the invitation. Almost as an afterthought, I added, "I didn't say this earlier, but I only do silent retreats." There was a pause, a rather long one. "Oh," she finally replied, "we have never had one of those before." Before I even thought about what I was saying, I answered, "That is the only kind of retreat I do." Period. The strength and conviction of my reply surprised me. The woman agreed that they would like to try one, so I began to explain to her what they were like for me, and why I was convinced that SILENCE, particularly silent retreats, were the best way to open oneself to the presence and peace of God.

I came upon silent retreats purely by accident. Thirty years ago a good friend "sent" me to one by literally taking me in her car and leaving me at the retreat site. I will never forget her conviction, or the experience itself. Though initially I was uncomfortable, that silent weekend broke open something in me—some barrier, I suppose. It was as if I had protected myself by busyness, words, activities, and never taken the time to hear, receive, or feel what God wanted to give me, without my saying a word or doing a thing.

I left the retreat more grounded and more at peace than I had ever been. And I had a new tool to use, one that helped me regain some of the peace I found at the retreat. The tool was, of course, SILENCE.

"Silence," writes Joan Chittister in Illuminated Life, "is the lost art in a society made of noise." I agree. She goes on to say that "the real material of spiritual development is not in books. It is in the subject matter of the self." As a book lover, that is hard for me to follow, yet I believe she is right. What God works with in my silent times is ME. No matter how many books by Henri Nouwen I read, or how many of Barbara Brown Taylor's sermons I ingest, it is only with ME that God deals when I permit myself to be quiet.

"Silence," Chittister continues, "is that place just before the voice of God…Silence is the cave through which the soul must travel, clearing out the dissonance of life as we go, so that the God who is waiting there for us to notice can fill us."

That is what happened to me at that long ago retreat, and continues to happen when I practice silence, either in private contemplative time or at a silent retreat. The latter is particularly effective for me because of the community effect of silence, and also because of the structure of a retreat.

The structure provides a safe container for me: There are times to listen to the person presenting material (the only one who talks!), there are times to sit silently before a roaring fire with others, there is even the surprising joy of eating without talking to anyone. If you haven't tried that, do! You won't believe how good food can taste when you aren't distracted by conversation, or a television program.

On that first retreat I attended, the opening talk by the priest was based on Isaiah 43, which he read aloud to us:

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel: do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through
the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not
overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you…Because you are precious
in my sight, and honored, and I love you."

I heard those words deep in my bones, and I felt my throat swell and tears fill my eyes. And, because I was being silent, I had only my reaction, my emotion, the lump in my throat to deal with. I felt those words in my bones, and I can still feel them. God had been waiting to tell me that for a long time and only in the silence could I hear them.

People who live alone ask me what they will "get" from a silent retreat, since they spend much of their time by themselves. Although all people are different, I find that making a commitment to go away, to open oneself to God intentionally is different from "spending time alone." Being intentional about it is what counts. As we know, God is always with us; it is in turning to God, without words, and allowing ourselves to be in the mystery of silence that we begin to see the world differently, and by the "world" I mean the outer but most particularly the inner.

On that first retreat so long ago, I received many gifts: insight, appreciation, wonder. Those gifts remained with me and have sustained me. The Episcopal school I graduated from has as its school prayer, "Help us O Lord to remember, through the example of Jesus Christ, that what we keep we lose, and only what we give remains our own."

So it is only fitting that I would pass along to anyone who reads this my conviction about the wonder and joy of silence.

Copyright © Margaret Jones