When I started my ordination training, like many others I had come from a busy and noisy culture (in my case, in business) and the idea of silence as a spiritual discipline was strange to me. Encouraged by the weekly quiet hour as part of the spirituality programme, for several years I adopted the habit of going on a three-day silent retreat around New Year. The only way I can describe the effect is that it was like digging a well down which struck an underground river of silence which then continued to flow into daily life. Although I sometimes listen to music, when working at home I often spend long periods of time in silence.
I was therefore delighted to read David Runcorn’s new Grove booklet on silence. David is Associate Director of Ordinands and Warden of Readers in Gloucester Diocese and has written on this subject before, for Grove and elsewhere, but this latest booklet gathers his insight and experience together in a way that will encourage the discovery and rediscovery of the importance of silence as a spiritual discipline.
This book is written for those who, like me, do not find silence easy but know they need it. I suspect that those who know me think silence comes easily to me. And it is true that I have long been drawn to it. I seek it out regularly. I have written about it. But it is rarely easy… In this book, I explore Christian understandings of silence and suggest ways of growing in our relationship with it. I am concerned that approaches to silence in the world of spirituality and prayer can get confused with therapy. I am not against tea lights and mood music but they can come perilously close to manipulating experiences of stillness by playing on the senses. This book is not about how to feel less stressed or more peaceful. It is not about feelings at all. If our assumption is that real silence is about having calming experiences of God and prayer, then we will often feel like a failure, thinking, ‘I must be doing something wrong.’ So here are some reflections on the gifts and challenges of silence in the midst of ordinary life, lived as a follower of Christ, in the gift of the Spirit and the love of God.
David goes on to note how much we struggle with silence in the context of a noisy culture. Pre-ordination retreats which were once conducted in almost complete silence are now regularly punctuated by other things.
More than once a deputation has come to me in mid-retreat to complain about the silence. In previous eras ordination retreats were totally silent. Today silence is kept for such short periods each day there is not enough time to settle into it. I am concerned at how many men and women are entering ministry without a nurturing, disciplined relationship with silence.
Rather than a problem, silence can be a gift. For some years I took small groups of theological students to a silent monastery for taster weekends. We joined the daily cycle of prayer in the chapel but beyond that nothing was structured. As they entered that strange, silent place with its unfamiliar patterns and rhythms of life I would watch their surprise at a sense that something infinitely gentle had been waiting to welcome them. The silence touched many of them profoundly. For a significant number, it was the beginning of a regular habit that has come to underpin their life and ministry.
Silence is always particularly difficult at times when we are under pressure to be active and achieving. But that may be when we need it more. The church today is feeling hugely challenged to be more outgoing, making a difference, speaking more compellingly—and rightly so. But it means these are not easy times to urge time for silence.
One surprising thing that David’s study highlights is the need for silence, not just as a spiritual discipline, but in all areas of life. And yet, paradoxically, we are already aware of its importance at key moments.
Did you know that the World Health Organization describes noise pollution as a ‘major public environmental health burden, second only to air pollution’? But it does not receive the same attention. Most main streets in British cities routinely record more than 70 decibels during the daytime: a level de ned as ‘excessive’ and potentially harmful in the US. It is estimated that eight mil- lion people across Europe su er sleep deprivation because of tra c noise. On the London Underground noise levels regularly average 100 dBA. Pubs and restaurants typically record 65–70 dBA during quiet periods, rising to 88 dBA when busy. (Without background noise normal human conversation takes place at around 50–60 dBA.)
The evidence is that we need more silence. It need more silence is simply good for us at all levels. Silence is calming in the first instance. It stimulates brain development. It enables us to think and reflect more deeply, tapping into emotions and ideas otherwise unavailable to us. Studies show that when relaxing music is played people are most relaxed during the silences between pieces of music!
Silence already occupies a natural place in our lives. At times, we seem to know that silence is the response that is needed. So, when we are honouring the victims of a terrorist attack, or standing in a packed football stadium paying tribute to a passing legend of the game, we fall silent. At war memorials silence is linked to remembering. Silence draws us back into our history and story.
There are many different kinds of silence. It varies according to the context in which it is found. Silence accompanies moments of wonder, shock, excitement, astonishment. Silence expresses grief, deep thoughtfulness and human intimacy. So much is said without words at such times. Silence is vital to moments that require particular focus, alertness, inspiration and concentration. The composer Arvo Pärt says of one composition, ‘I had to draw this music gently out of silence and emptiness.’ Silence is a preliminary for our most decisive actions—like athletes (and the crowds with them) poised in that moment of intense silence before the starter gun. So our drawing to silence is not new to us. Deep down we know its importance.
The middle section of the booklet looks at practical ways to enter into a period of silence, and how to address the issues and distractions that are thrown up. But David also explores some of the profound healing that can result from silence.
For Brian and his deep vulnerabilities in silence, meditating upon the journey of Jesus to the cross became a place of healing and recognition. The nearer Jesus came to his cross the more silent he became. There were fewer and fewer words and even those he spoke left people uncertain as to what exactly he was saying. On the cross, he entered the world’s most terrible silences and voiceless pain. This was a transforming realization for Brian. He could risk drawing near to his own voiceless, mute places without fear, because Jesus was there. But where others had left him overpowered and self-less, Jesus was quietly present, sharing and pain-bearing as no one ever had before.
There are times when faith becomes arid, hard and empty of meaning. The reasons will be varied but one is always found deep in the love and purposes of God—though it can easily feel like the opposite. I was struggling with such a time recently. God had gone silent. I was feeling lost, empty and oddly out of my element. I took a walk around the docks near where I live. In the boat repair yard there was a beautiful three-masted ship. I have a love for such boats and could easily imagine it in full sail out at sea. But when I got close I saw it was in dry dock. There it sat, exposed, high and dry and completely out of the world where it belonged. But I began to reflect on how necessary and purposeful that empty place was. In fact, it was essential. A dry dock enables the vital work of restoration and repair to happen. ‘Silence as God’s dry dock,’ I pondered. There are tough but essential seasons of dryness that, beyond our knowing, are part of a deeper restoring and equipping. We will need guidance and wisdom in times. But we can trust God to know when faith is ready to set sail again.
The last section includes some profound reflections on the importance of silence for a number of biblical characters, and how silence functions in deepening our relationship with God. This is a booklet full of insight, wisdom and poetic delight. Its practical elements will make it useful in any context where people need to encounter silence for the first time, but its theological insights will feed and encourage those who are some way along the road as well.
You can buy the booklet from the Grove website for £3.95 post free in the UK, or purchase as a PDF for immediate download.
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