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I made my first retreat to the Abbey of Gethsemani in February 2001. I went knowing I would be at a Trappist monastery where silence was practiced. I knew the monks who lived there seemed to be full of peace. Otherwise I had no idea what to expect.
I dropped my bags in my room and began my retreat sitting in a courtyard next to a small pond, listening to water trickle through a rock formation against a backdrop of stillness and quiet. As I relaxed I experienced something like a drunk’s first drink, something I realized had been missing my entire life. I felt a deep sense of inner peace and the recognition that this was something to which God had been drawing me for years. With this revelation, I took my first steps on the contemplative path.
The next day I drove to a nearby town to pick up something at a small grocery store. The background music playing overhead, something I would have barely noticed before, felt like an assault after the silence I had been savoring. I had my second revelation: making room for quiet and contemplation in my life was going to take some work.
Returning home after my retreat I began altering my routines to make stillness and silence a regular part of my day. Instead of repeatedly snoozing my alarm to sleep until the last possible minute I started rising early each day to spend an hour or more alone with scripture and prayer. I turn off the car radio and usually make my commutes in silence. When weather permits I sit on my deck in front of a pond of my own, listening to the water trickle or simply watching the tree tops sway in the wind. Eventually I made retreats to the Abbey of Gethsemani an annual event.
After a few more visits I came to associate the peace of the monastery with feeling the presence of God, so easy to experience there. God is, of course, always present everywhere but noise and distraction make awareness of the Divine presence a challenge. I’ve come to understand silence, solitude, and stillness as necessary conditions to feel God’s presence and to experience the peace of resting in that presence.
I live in a culture which avoids silence and craves outside stimulation. Restaurants, businesses, and even doctors’ offices provide continuous background music or television, whether we want such a distraction or not. Silence, stillness, and solitude will not just magically appear in our lives. Unless we cultivate them through intentional practice they, and the peace they bring, will be swept away in the noise that saturates our modern world.
Beyond the challenge of creating time and space to be still and quiet, other obstacles will meet those who attempt to practice a discipline of silence. Once we step away from the man-made noise to which we have become accustomed, we find ourselves confronted with internal noise, the chatter of thoughts which the external noise helps us avoid. Eastern religions call this chatter “the monkey mind,” the mind that won’t be still. Being alone with one’s thoughts can feel like too much for some people. I witnessed a man leave his monastery retreat early, shouting as his tossed his luggage in his car “I’ve got to get out of here! This silence is driving me crazy!”
Martin Laird (Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation) refers to this continuous flow of thoughts as “the cocktail party in our heads.” He associates many of our emotional and spiritual ills with our having become identified with the voices and videos of our internal thoughts. Fooled into believing that what we experience at the tip of our consciousness is who we are, we lose awareness of the deeper truth that our real lives are hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:1-4).
While walking alone on a Cape Cod beach one winter afternoon in 1992 novelist Anne LeClaire heard a voice tell her to “Sit in silence.” She responded by not talking for 24 hours as an experiment. This led to a life changing commitment to spend two days each month in silence, a discipline she has maintained over 25 years. She describes the intentional practice of silence as awakening a thirst of which she had been unaware, as sharpening her senses, even lowering her blood pressure. Through embracing silence, she came to connect with her deepest self. Disaffected with religion, she was resistant to call her practice “spiritual” but as she found herself increasingly mindful of a transcendent and sacred presence in her life she decided that it was.
LeClaire’s memoir, Listening Below the Noise, reflects on the insights she’s gained through practicing silence over many years. It’s an easy and rewarding read, highly recommended as an introduction to the profound impact that a discipline of silence can have on one’s life.
Martin Laird’s Into the Silent Land is in my opinion the best book available on the practice of silent (or contemplative) prayer. It’s an excellent guidebook that offers wise instruction for dealing with the chatter of thoughts you will encounter in silence.
Begin with small steps to take time away from the noise and busyness that otherwise fill your day. Turn off your car radio during commutes. Try the deceptively simple suggestion I received from an old monk during my first monastery visit when I asked for help with prayer: “Set aside 10 minutes each day to sit in silence and be aware that God is in you.” In stillness, solitude and silence you will begin to experience the truth of the psalmist’s words: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).