By Rev. Doug Martindale
Psalm 46: 10a “Be still and know that I am God."
I was sad when I heard that Woodlake Books was going out of business. It has involved a number of people we know in the congregation, and it was a beloved publisher of excellent books. On the other hand, I felt extremely blessed to visit Woodlake Books in the last week of their book sale. I bought two books at 75% off which was just a great feeling! They published a number of books on Spirituality including the Spirituality of Bread and the Spirituality of Sex. I had already decided to reflect on the theme of silence. So, I asked myself: what would the spirituality of silence be?
First, what is spirituality? The 13th Century mystic Meister Eckhard called God an underground river with many wells tapping into it. That river is spirituality. Jeremiah Abrams says spirituality is “a holy longing, a yearning to know the meaning of our lives, to have connection with the transpersonal.”
Spirituality includes a sense of connection to something greater than ourselves. Many of us call that God. Another description is: the art of making connection or heart knowledge. Everyone is spiritual to one degree or another although many people don’t admit it.
We all have different relationships to silence. Some folks can’t stand silence and so the radio or TV is always on whether listening or watching or not. Other folks are very comfortable with silence and there is no radio or TV on all day in their home or even when driving. And they are very comfortable with that. Most of us, I suspect, are somewhere in between.
What does the spirituality of silence look like? What does it sound like or is there no sound? How is it helpful? How does it change us? What happens when we are silent and still? What can happen?
What is the history of silence in our Christian tradition? The desert fathers and a few desert mothers practiced silence and a very austere life in the desert as a way to draw closer to God. This led to the monastic movement in which silence played a major part.
The Quakers or Society of Friends or Quakers worship primarily in silence. People only speak when moved by the Spirit. So, for Quakers there is clearly a connection between sitting in silence and being moved by the Spirit.
They describe it this way: “We gather in silence to quiet our minds. We don’t have any hymns, prayers, or sermons. In the stillness we open our hearts and lives to new insights and guidance. Sometimes we are moved to share what we discern to those present.”
Silence is the space where the mind and heart can find wisdom, even in the midst of struggles.
“We gather in silence to quiet our minds.” I think that is quite profound. Perhaps it is only after we quiet our minds that we can hear God nudging us or speaking to us or revealing what we could be or do.
You see, that is a problem for us as Protestants. Not only did we throw the baby out with the bathwater by getting rid of most parts of the mass, but we also got rid of silence during worship. And the traditions that we did have, which I observed in my parents and many others as I was growing up are disappearing. There was a tradition or practice of sitting in the pew in silence or prayer as soon as one sat down and also sitting in silence or prayer after the benediction. We need to build in time in worship for silence.
I can think of only a few times of profound silence in my life because for many decades I was very busy and time for quiet or silence was not a priority for me. (Although I did ride the bus or my bike to work for 21 years, half an hour each way, and did not listen to anything on earbuds.)
My inability to be silent or quiet when with other people especially in a pastoral setting was pointed out to me in an embarrassing and unforgettable way by my supervisor, Fr. Tipping when I did twelve weeks of chaplaincy training at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. There were three Catholic seminarians and two United Church theology students in our group. Each week one of us shared with our supervisor and fellow students a verbatim or written account of a visit with a patient. The supervisor and our fellow students would critique our visit. It was obvious to our supervisor Fr. Tipping that both my Emmanuel College friend and I could not sit quietly or sit in silence and wait for the patient to say something. So, with deadly accuracy and withering sarcasm he called us “cheery, chatty chaplains”.
It was only when I retired from my second career in 2011 that I developed a daily practice that included silence. I spent an hour a week for many weeks with Sr. Marie at St. Benedicts Monastery, north of Winnipeg, learning Lectio Divina or praying with scripture. This process of prayer involves steps including:
· being in a quiet space free of noise and distractions.
· paying attention to one’s breath,
· repeating a word or phrase in silence,
· listening for images, feelings and memories,
· listening for what has been stirred up inside,
· listening for the invitation of God towards new awareness or action,
· resting in the stillness of God,
· and much more.
“We gather in silence to quiet the mind” the Quakers say. This is a big struggle for me. Some people believe that true silence is not thinking. I have tried to get my head around this concept, and I can’t, probably because I have trouble experiencing it. There are very few times when I’m not thinking. One of them is when I’m practicing heart breathing. I’m not sure what it is all about and I do know that when I’m concentrating on my breath, I’m not thinking about anything.
So just how is silence spiritual? Silence is spiritual when we let it-when we let it become an opportunity for taping into the underground river that Mister Eckhardt called God, when there is a yearning to know the meaning of our lives, when we connect with something or better, someone, greater than ourselves, whom many of us call God, when we sit in silence to quiet our minds so we can feel God-Spirit nudging us.
When have you experienced moments of profound silence?
When has silence been a spiritual time or practice for you?
Do you have a longing or yearning for more silence in your life?
Do you long for a spiritual practice that includes silence or includes silence in addition to a time of prayer?
My prayer is that you can find or develop a practice that becomes meaningful. If you need help, there are three people who give spiritual direction who are part of this congregation who would be happy to help you in this process. May we all be blessed with silence, and may that silence be a time of spiritual connection to that and whom, is greater than ourselves.
Lectio Divina the Sacred Art: Transforming Words and Images into heart Centered Prayer by Christine Vaulters Painter
Spirituality and Practice website