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WEEKLY REFLECTIONS

~ The Test of Silence ~


You have heard the expression, “The silence was deafening.” Many of you perhaps experienced that literally. I heard such silence in very different places. There were those absolutely still, dark and silent forests, particularly when they were snow covered. Other places were the many caves I explored. In them was absolute darkness as well as absolute silence.

Then there were the many old churches in which I found myself alone. And speaking of them, I vividly recall how I hung back from the tourist crowd in the catacombs beneath Paris. Their voices fainted away into absolute quiet as I remained alone among stone chambers lined with bones and skulls.

In those places the silence was physically palpable. Silence turned into a literal noise, like a loud hum.

I treasure that silence. In it is mystery and wisdom. I could fill it with my thoughts, songs and prayers. Sometimes I did, but most often I chose not to. Such silence was the portal to the voice of God, too sacred to interrupt with my own.

Substance is defined by space. Remove all the space around the legs and arms of a comfortable wooden chair and you will find yourself sitting on a solid block of wood. Remove all the space around an exquisite statue and you would be looking at a block of stone. Remove the rests from a musical score, or the spaces between these words or the pauses between our spoken words, and you would be left with a stream of indecipherable babble and noise.

I appreciated how one Bible teacher I knew prayed. So many pastors and preachers shift from prayer to conversation faster than the speed of sound and worse, so many make their prayers an extension or summary of their preaching. This Bible teacher would say, “Let’s pray” and pause long enough for us to breathe deeply three or four times and reorient our consciousness. His prayer was slow and meditative. I could join him in it. And when he said “Amen” he didn’t jump right into the usual talk. He paused in silence. We breathed a few more full breaths in contemplation and gratitude for the prayer that was not a disguised introduction or summary to his “message” to us. When he prayed “In Jesus Name…” he was not using His name in personal vain.

So sit in a silent place. No natural or artificial sounds. No hearing the wind through the trees, gurgling brooks, TV, music or voices. No stimulation of the senses. No humming or talking to yourself.

Just thinking about doing that for an hour sounds unappealing, boring and even frightening to many. Those who are bored will find it difficult to resist thinking or entertaining themselves in some way. Those who find this challenge scary probably fear the unleashing of inner demons, so to speak. The lingering, buried, painful memories, loneliness, fears and desperate longings awaken in the silence, calling out for attention. Those who experience this want to end this test of silence. Turn on a radio, TV, CD player, go online, call someone, anything to stop this unbearable noise from within.

Many people who profess “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” and appear “on fire for the Lord” would be quick to end this silence. Typically they would end it by praying, non-stop talking. Many of them would not agree with me, but I contend that is a form of distraction and self-occupation, like humming, singing, whistling or talking to oneself.

Don’t you find non-stop talkers annoying? Don’t you think God does also? “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will he heard because of their many words” (Matthew 6:7). Yes, God does. Prayer is a dialog. All dialogs must include periods of silent listening. That means you do not think about what you are going to say while the other is speaking to you. That is not listening. That is constant talking, whether you are talking out loud to the other or talking inside to the other while the other is talking to you. Rather than dialog, this becomes an announcement of self-generated proclamations, back and forth. It ends without anyone learning anything, although it may have been entertaining.

The book of Job illustrates this well. Lots of not dialog, but proclamations of opinions offered as truth ensued, until God, obviously annoyed, stepped in and stopped it: “Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm. He said: ‘Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer’” (Job 38:1-3, NIV). After being verbally beat up by God, Job responded, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (Job 42:3b). God demands, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

If we cannot maintain such a silence without the intrusive and unwanted thoughts, without the pressing temptation to flee such silence into sensory stimulation, we must then evaluate our “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Many of us experienced infatuating love with another. We know the experience of sitting in silence and being flooded by feelings, thoughts and the warm ecstasy of awareness of the love for our beloved. Why, then, don’t so many of us experience this with our beloved Jesus on the same intensity? Why is the call to entering the silence so avoided? Does it have to do with the unceasing noise, clamor and attention seeking of our wounded souls?

So I end with a prayer from the heart of St. Columban: “Loving Savior, be pleased to show yourself to us who knock, so that in knowing you we may love only you, love you alone, desire you alone, contemplate only you day and night, and always think of you. Inspire in us the depth of love that is fitting for you to receive as God. So may your love pervade our whole being, possess us completely, and fill all our senses, that we may know no other love but love for you who are everlasting. May our love be so great that the many waters of sky, land and sea cannot extinguish it in us: many waters could not extinguish love.”

Pray that with all your heart and being, then enter the test of silence. Encountering our Lord the Christ in that silence will move it from being a test to being a daily pursuit in anticipation of loving embrace, rest and renewal of His resurrected life into us.
 

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
~ Education, Research and Advocacy
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Spiritual Resource Services  © October 29, 2004
 
 

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