Let’s book a little silence

Let’s book a little silence

Marije Nieuwenhuis ponders the significance  of silence: our silence and God’s.

A reason to plan space for silence in Insights was proposed at an editorial meeting late last year.

On this very hot day our team was sweltering on the second floor of a charming old terrace building that houses Balmain Uniting Church and a lovely community café that very kindly kept us hydrated with generous amounts of water and (iced) coffee.

It is always an exciting process to turn the blank canvas into a spanking new magazine and, in the land of publishing, the unwritten rule is that a proper editorial meeting is somewhat like a buzzing beehive.

Ideas are ping-ponged over the table, post-it notes and whiteboards fill up with scribbles — kudos for the one who manages to decode it afterwards — and “creatives” find themselves tripping over their tongues to get their gems in.

Not that particular day.

The thick hot air didn’t take long to convince that sitting (and keeping) still was the best option for the day; no vigorous gestures or jumping up to share.

And it was just this quiet introspective mood that taught us that silence can be excellent soil for new ideas and insights (you could read a capital “I” here). It creates time for imagination, reflection, deliberation, creativity, prayer and the opportunity to listen and contemplate.

Speaking of contemplation … What actually is silence?

Obviously stillness is always contextual: there couldn’t be silence without the existence of noise and movement. Silence can appear in many guises and is associated with a spectrum of emotions from “peaceful” to “uncomfortable”.

Silence says a lot

In today’s noise-polluted world, where messages and information are abundant, silence becomes essential if we are to distinguish useful input from, well, noise.

Growing faith usually requires an introspective journey of studying and listening. But distraction is lurking in every corner.

Ironically, at this very moment I realise part of my focus is repeatedly drawn to outer hustle and bustle — “Is that passing marching band a grand rehearsal for Australia Day?” And, indeed, it becomes harder to sift through research material and make a point. I hear you thinking … but shhh, just a moment.

I found inspiration in an article written by David Gibson at foryourmarriage.org and he, in turn, quotes from the 2012 World Day of Communications speech delivered by Pope Benedict XVI, who said, “Silence is an integral element of communication.”

Now I have to confess (pun not intended) that even though I’m from a Reformed tradition, this is an observation I fully agree with.

In his speech he said that silence and words represent “two aspects of communication that need to be kept in balance”.

By growing silent we allow the other to speak. The Pope said it “gives rise to even more active communication, requiring sensitivity and a capacity to listen that often makes manifest the true measure and nature of the relationships involved”.

I have a friend (or acquaintance might be a better title) who would be wise to practise the art. She is notorious for staring over your shoulder at something apparently more interesting than your desperate attempt to keep a conversation going.

I find myself usually responding by stopping abruptly in the middle of whatever fascinating thing I was just saying. Recently I heard a rather disgruntled voice telling her, “I just told you that, thanks for listening!”

So when David Gibson mentioned that silence, “coupled with attentive listening”, can help people deepen relationships with others they encounter every day in their families, workplaces and communities”, I found myself nodding vigorously. He added, “Of course, silencing our voices and our minds also can help broaden our awareness of God’s presence.”

Silence and religion

Silence brings us a sense of awareness and calm that is essential not only to prayer; it also helps us recognise the need to be present in a singular moment.

Silence can unlock not only a deep self-awareness, but it also can lead us to a profound prayer experience. It is in the silence that God speaks to us.

While silence seemed initially unhelpful in the context of that Insights’ planning meeting, and however hard it may be to create it in our daily lives, in church we guard it as a fundamental element in our worship service; a vital component in growing our relationship with God and our own personal faith.

We create silence to reflect and pray, and grow quiet as a symbol of worship to God.

Mother Teresa once wrote, “[We] need silence. To be alone or together looking for God in silence. There it is that we accumulate the inward power which we distribute in action, put in the smallest duty and spend in the severest hardships … Silence came before creation and the heavens were spread without a word.”

Churches generally breathe peacefulness.

Enter any typical tourist-ridden cathedral or church and find that people lower their voices in respect and switch their phones to silent even if they are not believers.

But, on the other hand, how quiet are our Sunday services on average, really? And does it always result in the desired effect?

I grew up with an understanding that silence is an essential part of prayer. My Dad is a minister and I remember sitting wedged between my Mum and two younger brothers, trying to resist the urge to fidget during prayer.

Peeking through my eyelashes, my narrowed and somewhat blurred gaze went from my Mum’s purse where I knew the Wilhelmina peppermint would be, to faces in opposite rows. Some of them looking around wide-eyed (gasp!), others faced up to heaven open-mouthed and with their eyes shut (for other reasons than reverence, I suspect).

This says nothing about my father’s performance of course, but I better mention the mass which was, I was pleased to see, sitting quietly but attentively. But I wonder, was “young me” the only one relieved to hear Amen and happy to strike up the next hymn?

As I recall from those long, hushed moments, silence can be uncomfortable.

In an article published at www.guardian.co.uk, Mark Vernon says, “Silence is like forgiveness. Many would say it’s a lovely idea, until they have to do it (to borrow a line from CS Lewis).

Or, more provocatively, could there be a cultural conspiracy around silence, as if the powers-that-be would prefer that we did not do it? After all, the silent person is a dangerous person.

They have thoughts of their own.” And who hasn’t experienced an awkward silence, for that matter? In its most negative form silence can create confusion or a frosty atmosphere.

The silent God

Thinking about “negative silence” in a religious context, God’s silence comes to mind. My father sent me a chapter from a book Verbs in the Bible: Their Meaning in Religion and Culture by Dutch author Piet Schelling.

A quick search learns the King James Bible contains 788,258 words. Of these, 14,565 are unique.

“To say” is by far the most frequently used verb; it appears 2,558 times.

It’s probably safe to say that on every page of the Bible we hear somebody speak. However, each word knows its counterpart and there is a good share of silence, or keeping silent, as well. Humans call out to God who keeps silent.

Chapter 25 of Schelling’s book is a study about “the silent God” — being a problem for most Christians.

The relationship between God and humans presumes God’s presence. Once that presence is desperately sought but not experienced, a faith crisis can emerge. What one thought, professed and believed seems untrue suddenly, or deficient at least.

We see this silence which is difficult to comprehend and accept, repeatedly in Psalms. Schelling claims therefore that our ongoing attempt to position and grasp God’s silence is merely a liturgical concept.

In Habakkuk 1:13 we see the prophet lashing out to God:

Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.
Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?
Why are you silent while the wicked
swallow up those more righteous than themselves?

What is happening is hard to connect with our image of God. At many occasions God’s silence is wrapped in mystery which is beyond the comprehension of the believer.

Basically, it makes no sense at all. Sometimes the understanding comes later, maybe even at the end of a lifetime. Suddenly the context in which God’s silence had a purpose is apparent.

The book God on Mute by Pete Greig was written from his personal experience of the power of prayer alongside the pain of unanswered prayer — during his wife’s illness — and the common human struggle to find faith with that paradox.

Tracking Christ’s own unanswered prayer through Gethsemane and Golgotha, the book leads the reader to Easter Sunday where miracles arise — often when we least expect it.

Greig is a theology graduate, who found his spiritual home at the Revelation Church in Chichester and is passionate about his message “because it will help hurting people to hang onto God when they need him more than ever before”.

Purposeful silence we find also in Jesus’ actions, such as his retreat to the wilderness and his lack of words at crucial moments in his ministry.

Jesus’ silence during the interrogation by the Jewish Council stirs something in most of us, but we can think of reasons why: it needed to be done, he did it for us.

God’s silence is harder to explain; most of us are not able to fathom this stillness. In the space between the God of our theology and the world of our experience stands Jesus: God among us, suffering with us, for us, and fundamentally reorienting our conceptions of things like strength and weakness, mercy and justice.

Jesus was a great speaker but he used purposeful silence on many occasions too.

The silences of Jesus play a great role in later Christian centuries. Mark Vernon refers us to Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University, who delivered the 2011-2012 Gifford Lecture Series at the University of Edinburgh. The series of six lectures present a lively history of silence in the church — the podcasts are available to watch at www.ed.ac.uk.

Episode six, “Silence in modern and future Christianities”, examines the democratisation of the quest for silence in industrial society (the tangling of a secular society with the silences provided by Christian tradition, through for instance the popularity of retreats, or the observance of silence in remembrance).

It also considers the importance of “whistle-blowing” to modern Christianity, the relation of agnosticism to silence, the role of music in silence and Christian understanding, and the relationship between Word and Spirit in the future of Christian life

My yoga school offers silence retreats.

And after a practice we say thanks for our breath, our practice, and the good things in our life.

Sounds familiar, indeed, so why yoga?

It’s not that I enjoy doing headstands that much but I have to admit the church does not bring me the much needed dose of peacefulness anymore.

It is like that buzzing beehive: full of music and activities for the common good. All of which I applaud — I think that is what defines the Uniting Church and makes it a church that aims to reach beyond your own spiritual experience and actually helps to make the world a better place.

But where to find a quiet moment!

Ever since my husband and I moved to the metropolitan area of Sydney — being born and raised in a sleepy village in the east of the Netherlands — the theme of silence has been on my mind simply because it is so hard to find in the city.

And, as much as I love my “new” life, I also find myself craving desperately for some peace and quiet and wishing for better isolation in our charmingly old but very noisy apartment building.

It’s cold too, actually. Dare I say it? You do have winters in Australia. You do.

Silence in the Lenten season

Many spiritual writers today speak of a “wilderness experience” as a kind of retreat experience, time set apart to focus on, to ask, to consider and to respond to faith questions.

It doesn’t need to be, and often is not, a literal deserted place.

Silence in spirituality is often a metaphor for inner stillness. A silent mind, freed from the ever-moving train of thoughts, is both a goal and an important step in spiritual development.

Such inner silence is not about the absence of sound; instead, it is understood to bring one in contact with the divine, the ultimate reality, or one’s own true self.

Can we distinguish our silence from God’s silence?

In Psalm 39 the writer uses a different verb to convey God’s silence (“charasj”) in relation to his own (“alam” and “hasjah”). He falls silent, goes numb, and doesn’t know what to say, while God’s silence is explained as a purposeful silence and consequently, an answer.

The central event in Christianity, so astonishing that it caused — and still causes — human “alam”, is Jesus’ resurrection.

In Mark’s gospel, the first and oldest gospel, the Easter story closes, saying, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

“They said nothing.”

There is only silence. Easter silence.

What can you say when words fail to express? This is worth a silent thought. Let’s book some space for silence this Lent and prepare to comprehend the great wonder of Easter.


Marije Nieuwenhuis is the Synod Mission Promotions Officer for Living is Giving, and enjoys her quiet time.


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