~by Pastor Mike Middaugh
We are quickly approaching the season of Lent (Ash Wednesday is February 18) which means we are entering a more contemplative and introspective season of the church year. As we approach Lent I thought I would take the next few weeks to outline several classic spiritual disciplines that are largely overlooked today.
When was the last time that you sat in silence — clean, simple, peaceful silence?
If you are anything like me, you might not be able to remember. In fact, I have realized recently I am so averse to silence that I immediately reach for my iPhone, a magazine, the radio, a remote, or just about anything else, to make sure I avoid the silence of doing absolutely nothing. This may be one of the most spiritually detrimental aspects of our modern lives. We are so busy filling our ears and our minds with information, and whatever else, that we end up feeling empty all the time.
An interesting phenomenon has emerged over the last few years in American culture – people are paying good money to be forced into silence. Whether at a Yoga Center (one I recently came across has a class called “Relax, Breathe, Meditate,”) or leaving town for a silent retreat center, which The Huffington Post dubbed one of the “biggest travel trends of 2013,” it seems we are longing for silence, even as we so often go out of our way to avoid it.
For Christians, the spiritual practices of silence and prayer have long been closely related. While prayer often involves shutting out noise, and beginning an internal dialogue with God, silence might be considered a time to simply listen.
The late Dallas Willard, a notable Christian author and USC Philosophy professor, writes:
The first and most basic thing we can and must do is to keep God before our minds. David knew this secret and wrote, “I have set the Lord continually before me; because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoices; my flesh also will dwell securely” (Ps. 16:8-9, NASB).
This is the fundamental secret of caring for our souls. Our part in thus practicing the presence of God is to direct and redirect our minds constantly to Him. In the early time of our “practicing” [silence] we may well be challenged by our burdensome habits of dwelling on things less than God. But these are habits—not the law of gravity—and can be broken. A new, grace-filled habit will replace the former ones as we take intentional steps toward keeping God before us. Soon our minds will return to God as the needle of a compass constantly returns to the north. If God is the great longing of our souls, He will become the pole star of our inward beings.
While silence is not a practice modern Christian often employ, it has a rich tradition with the people of God, one that our Catholic friends should get credit for maintaining. Trappist monk and priest Thomas Keating writes that “silence is God’s first language; everything else is a poor translation. In order to hear that language, we must learn to be still and to rest in God.” (Invitation to Love: the way of Christian contemplation)
Even Jesus needed to find silence at times. The gospel writers tell us that regularly he would “go out to a solitary place” (Luke 4:42), but that often the crowds would come seeking him, sometimes disrupting his prayerful silence. And years before the birth of Jesus, the Old Testament people of God regularly devoted themselves to prayer, even at days on end. Certainly many of David’s psalms have their roots in his own solitary endeavor to seek the will of God.
Unfortunately, the Christian practice of silence is not an easy one to master. We first have to find the time, but even before that we should admit that time is “made” and never really “found.” Second, we have to be willing to give up something else for this holy purpose. Are we able to go without the latest headline, the time-drain that is our phone, a chance to sleep in, or even our loved ones for a few extra minutes in order to seek the presence of God? Third, we have to practice. Every honest Christian practitioner of silence that I have read acknowledges that this takes practice to develop. We have to teach our minds to rest. We need to learn to simply BE in the presence of Jesus, allowing our souls to be nourished by him.
Thinking about my own experience again, I can actually remember a time that I was forced into silence. It was in the months following the birth of our now 15 month-old daughter, Scarlett.
Any new parent will tell you about restless, late nights, difficult 3 a.m. feedings, and hours spent rocking an infant to sleep, but I also vividly remember sitting in a dark room with Scarlett on my chest and realizing I finally had time to connect with God. Her needs were forcing me to nourish my own. Of course God had been there all along. In the days before Scarlett, when life was actually far less busy, I could have stopped to experience his presence, but I often didn’t. It took a tiny, needy child and a necessarily quiet room to get me to be still. When I did, I finally thanked God for the gift of my child. I allowed God to take some of the stress that comes with an infant. And some nights I simply sat in his peaceful presence.
It is up to us to choose silence and other practices of spiritual discipline that enable us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18).
Click Here for Part 2 of this series.
Click Here for Part 3 of this series.