It is surprisingly difficult for us to handle silence. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) the brilliant French mathematician and philosopher famously wrote, “All the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, they cannot stay quietly in their own room.”
I find that amazingly profound. It is even more true today in our frenetic fast paced technology driven world than it was in the 17th century when he first made that observation.
The reason why we so much struggle to sit quietly on our own, Pascal continues is the “natural poverty of our feeble and mortal condition, so miserable that nothing can comfort us when we think of it closely.”
In other words, we just do not like being alone by ourselves. The reason? It reminds us how weak, conflicted and insecure we are. It is also so easy for negative thoughts to come seeping in and lead me on a path to depressive thinking. Everything within me resists going down that path of solitude and silence. (For my personal experience with that see the 15 minute video Just As I Am).
So what do we do instead? How do we not, as Pascal says, “think of it closely”? We use a technique that has been unchanged for thousands of years – Pascal called it “diversion”. We find ways to distract us from ourselves. Going back to Pascal he eloquently explains:
“Hence it comes people so much love noise and stir; hence it comes that prison is so horrible a punishment; hence it comes that the pleasure of solitude is a thing incomprehensible.”
In our modern context, we switch on the radio, the TV, we grab our mobile phones. We immerse ourselves in busyness for the sake of being busy. (For more about this see How To Avoid God). In many ways it can add to the stress we experience.
At this point it may be helpful to define our terms. The dictionary defines silence as the complete absence of sound, and the fact or state of abstaining from speech.
However, silence and solitude are vital for true, lasting spiritual growth (See post on Spiritual Maturity). If solitude is the practice of being absent to people and things to attend to God, silence is the practice of quieting every inner and outer voice to attend to Him.
And yet learning to live in silence is so hard. It is not helped by the fact that we have often spent a life time not being silent. It would rather be like not running or exercising for your entire life and then making a start. Initially it will be very difficult and maybe even unbearable. With practice, however, it is possible to embrace the silence as that becomes more natural. The silence can then become a friend, or maybe even more accurately we sense there is the Friend in the silence.
The other point to bear in mind is that there are distinct differences between practising silence in the Bible, Eastern meditation or a secular programme like mindfulness. Every religion and even secular atheists agree about the importance of time to stop and just ‘be’. The difference lies in how we interpret and what we focus on in the silence.
Biblical spirituality emphasises filling the silence with the presence of God through His divine word. This differs from other traditions or world views that talk of emptying our minds into nothingness or looking for an altered state of consciousness.
So the goal of silence in Biblical spirituality then is about being with God and cultivating our relationship with Him. We surrender our will to God’s presence and action.
Coming back to Pascal, he writes we have “another secret instinct, a remnant of the greatness of our original nature, which teaches that happiness in reality consists only in rest and not in being stirred up.”
This instinct that seeks rest and solitude is in conflict with the instinct to divert ourselves. The result is that we aim at rest through excitement, “and always to fancy that the satisfaction which they do not have will come to them, if by surmounting whatever difficulties confront them, they can thereby open the door to rest.”
In other words we look to outer circumstances or events to bring us the ‘rest’ and peace that we seek. (See Podcast #006 on Rediscovering Joy and blog post Why I Am Working On Being A Happier Person).
I remember a junior doctor who worked with me a number of years ago. She was struggling with her exams that seemed to her like an insurmountable mountain. She had developed a certain mindset that her life would be so much easier if she would just pass her exams. She worked hard and eventually did so after much perseverance. I remember saying to her to enjoy and savour the moment, because there were sure to be just as great challenges coming up. Sure enough within the week she had major issues with her visa and work situation that preoccupied her just as much did the exams previously. She became just as distressed and anxious as she had been before. Passing the exams, while a good thing, did not give her the ‘rest’ she was hoping for.
Another example was when I was a junior doctor and saw a patient of mine who was dying of an untreatable tumour. She confided to me how terrified of death she was. We discussed the implications of the resurrection and the hope that comes because of the death of Christ. She was very keen to understand and think about what that meant for her personally at the end of her life. When I saw her again a few days later while she was clear did not want to die, she had a peace and serenity that convinced me she had achieved a ‘rest’ that could handle death with confidence and poise.
Silence does not have to be an enemy. In the silence we can find the Friend who transcends the silence.
Here are some words of Mother Theresa to reflect on when entering silence:
We need to find God and He cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grow in silence. See the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence. We need silence to be able to touch souls.
I love the modern Message translation of Psalm 46:10 from the Old Testament:
Step out of the traffic! Take a long, loving look at me, your High God, above politics, above everything.”
If you are struggling with silence, I suggest you set yourself a timer for 5 minutes and use the following prayer as a first step to embrace the silence. If you have not done this before then it may feel very uncomfortable, but with practice you can find great peace:
I weave a silence onto my lips
I weave a silence into my mind
I weave a silence within my heart
I close my ears to distractions
I close my eyes to attractions.
I close my heart to temptations.
Calm me, O Lord, as you stilled the storm
Still me O Lord, keep me from harm
Let all tumult within me cease.
Enfold me, Lord in your peace.
What has been your experience with silence?
(For more on Pascal’s Pensees or Thoughts see here. This post refers to section 139)