Why we need Silence

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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15 thoughts on “Why we need Silence”

  1. Silence needs to be an integral part of every church service too, and the congregation taught how to use it. Too much of our worship sees us “babbling on like the heathen” either with words made stale by repetition, or, in the case of the intercessions, reading out long lists of people or problems that it seems we must bring to God’s attention. We can learn from the Quaker way with silence.

  2. On retreat, I found the silence most profound when it is punctuated by times of non-silence … the contrast meant that words gained significance: if you can only talk to others between lunch and tea, then words are precious and considered rather than wasted.

    I realise this is a by-product of the silence, but it is nevertheless of significant value.

  3. Yes Simon the usual suspects are sitting this one out here. But some interesting discussion on FB pages – including issues about temperament, personaliity and preferences, deafness and tinnitus ….

  4. Hi David – unfortunately I dont do facebook. I confess I find the whole spirituality of silence difficult. I am not sure if its my personality or my theology or what…. I have always believed that fundamental to God’s revelation is “speech” and this is echoed at the core of our being as Imago Dei. Whenever the Spirit comes on someone in Scripture and tradition (mine admittedly) ‘speech’ ensues – prophesy, prayer, preaching etc So I tense at the mention of ‘silence’. Am I the only one? I spend a lot of time on my own, with my thoughts & prayers – but i’m not sure that’s silence as you encourage – and I often need music playing to drown out competing noises to enable me to focus with my prayers/thoughts/meditation on scripture etc

  5. Ps – I have attempted silent a few retreats – but failed or struggled so badly as to find the whole thing unhelpful. If speech is core to God’s revelation and interaction with us as Imago Dei, then is silence in some way dehumanising? That’s how it ‘feels’ to me…

  6. Hi Simon You are very honest thank you – and no, you are not unusual. I have tried to write this book for people who find silence difficult while still encouraging folk of its importance. One of the points I make is that speech is actually not intelligible unless there are silences. This is what punctuation provides – the pauses, breaks etc are silences that help us make sense of words. Silence in that sense is what interprets speech. So it is a both/and discussion, not either/or.

    If we were to sit and talk I’d want to explore with you why you tense at the mention of silence. In our upbringing silence can powerfully communicate all sorts of things – good and bad – punishment and exclusion for example. Not all silence is good and nurturing. Sometimes we need to trace the kinds of silences in our story that may be shaping our responses now. There are some silences we need healing from (that is true of styles of speech too – tone of voice etc). Does that make sense?

    If you give it a go I’d love to know if the book helps.

    The discussion about speech and God is important but needs a longer response … but let me lob in this thought. Research shows only 7% of communication is verbal. So yes God ‘speaks’. But it is very possible to over-stress speech – and personally I feel the evangelical tradition tends to do that.
    Thanks for engaging …

    • David, I loved your point about silence making sense of speech—but also your observation that there are moments when we instinctively know that silence is the only response.

      It seemed to me that this observations help us to recognise that silence is something less foreign to us than we often suppose.

      On the question of the Spirit coming, yes, the Spirit as the breath of God does very often bring speech. But the presence of Gog came to Elijah in the ‘sheer sound of silence’; Zechariah was struck dumb by the power of the promise of God; and one sign of The End in Rev 8.1 is ‘silence in heaven’, a rabbinical motif of the age to come. ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence…’

    • Thank you Ian & David – yes I agree with all this and I like the ideas much of space between speech, silence as response, and silence awaiting God’s speech – never quite understood the Revelation text about silence, ‘for about half-an hour’ in heaven – is there time in the age to come?

      • Yes, I think there is time in the age to come. ‘Time no more’ in Rev 10.6 (written on the clock in Tom’s Midnight Garden) is a mistranslation of what should be rendered ‘There will be no more delay’.

        I found Peter Leithart’s poetic exegesis of the silence inspiring, though I did not quite agree with all of it.


        This is what I say in my commentary:

        After the long interlude of chapter 7, the sequence from chapter 6 resumes with a statement When he opened which is nearly identical to the opening of the first five seals. After all the noise and clamour of worship in chapters 4 and 5 and then the chaos of chapter 6 and the counting and praising of chapter 7, the declaration of silence comes as a surprising disruption to the narrative and makes the reader or hearer pause. Silence can indicate the no-one knows what to do or how to react now that the seals are all opened. But within the narrative sequence of the seals, this is the end of the series of seven, which has been building to the climax of God’s final judgement on the world, so the silence is best understood as a sign of the end of all things. The prospect of judgement should make all the world fall into silence (Zech 2:13, Rom 3:19), and there was a Jewish tradition that the age to come would be marked by a return to the primeval silence before God spoke the world into being (see 4 Ezra 7:30).

        Half an hour indicates a finite period of time, but it is also a split time, like the half-week of time, times and half a time. Splitting a period of time in half indicates a transition, a sudden change of direction or rescue in the middle—so the judgement of God comes on Egypt at ‘half night’ (Ex 12:29), usually translated ‘midnight’. We have glimpsed God’s dealings with the world, and the end, but there is more yet to be seen and revealed. Within the sequences of John’s visions, the silence creates space for hearing the prayers of the saints in v 4; silence as a sign of reverence as prayers are offered was part of Greek, Roman and Jewish practice.

  7. Very briefly on this topic: I’m a big fan of Martin Laird and his ‘Into the silent land’ (DLT, 2006) and ‘A sunlit absence’ (OUP, 2011 I think?). Probably shouldn’t put an A***zon link in… 😉 He writes with such clarity and encouragement, and may also be helpful for those who aren’t convinced that silence and contemplative practice are ‘native’ to Christian traditions.

    in friendship, Blair

    • I am a fan of Laird too Blair. In this instance I have tried to write at more try levels for people who don’t find it easy – but Laird’s finger prints are there, among others.


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