There’s an awful lot of noise around at the moment. Perhaps there was always a din in the Agora and a racket in the Forum, but they were concerned with important matters of philosophy and polity. Or at least they always seem to be from the accounts handed down to us. But ours is an age where the very air we breathe is filled with muzak and incessant babble and every matter of trivia becomes a Twitter riot or commotion. Certainly, we can turn our computers and tablets off, but then there are newspapers, radio, telly, texting, Facebook – yadda, yadda, yadda. A politician pronounces that to leave the EU would have a “devastating impact” on young people – yadda, yadda, yadda. A bishop preaches that the EU is “the most successful project for.. democracy the world has ever seen” – yadda, yadda, yadda.. and great delusion.
For a moment you might ignore them, but more often there’s a burning urge to reason and refute. And so the crash-bang-bedlam of public discourse descends to noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.
Jesus liked silence: He found it in deserts and gardens. We need silence, but it isn’t easy (or safe) to wander off into the Sinai any more. And most of our gardens and public parks are plagued by buzzing planes and the inescapable hum of traffic.
How do you extricate Twitter and Blogger from your ‘quiet time’? Indeed, do you have a quiet time? Do you need solitude? The accounts of the coming of the Holy Spirit evidence frantic activity – Christians spoke in tongues (Acts 2:6f), preached (2:17ff), healed (3:1ff), prophesied (11:28), and raised the dead (20:7ff). Never was a coming of the Spirit followed by just sitting in silence. Even searching the scriptures daily consisted of raucous debate (17:11).
It is perfectly possible to surround oneself with a meditative silence, but only in proportion to the degree of silence that bathes the inner life. Reading a daily chapter of Scripture and running through a prayer list are easily deflected, if not stifled, by worries, resentments, regrets, continual replays of conversations and rehearsals of future encounters. Many Christians who speak of having an ‘inner peace’ often refer to a stillness and spiritual stability which was unknown to them before they came to know their Lord and Saviour. They may have endured all manner of inner turmoils and resentments that gnawed at their souls, but meeting the Lord stilled them inwardly, and such inner peace grows as they learn to yield to Him more and more.
Having ‘peace’ with God isn’t just an intellectual theological statement, but a deep inner reality. The Holy Spirit dwells within us at a deep level, often below consciousness, and there He works, meeting individuals in different ways. In the busyness of humdrum activity (and much of church), periods of silence are crucial for the interior life of the soul. The more the inner parts are nourished by repose, the more profound the inner life becomes.
Some Christians place emphasis on a regular ‘quiet time’ with God – with the length of it perceived to be somehow proportional to one’s level of spirituality. But being silent is difficult, especially in a society geared to recognise ‘usefulness’ only in hyper-activity. Silence in the Christian life is a secluded garden of relaxation for the cultivation of the soul. It demands such profound scrutinies that the ensuing self-examination and waiting on God will illuminate every dark corner of one’s character. The process can be so invasive that most believers will flee to avoid it with last year’s Spring Harvest CD playing in the background. We use noise as a soul-defence mechanism: why confront our own ugliness when it’s easier to spew up over the sordid state of others? No, noise is hash: we are addicted to it and simply cannot face the cold turkey of silence.
But contemplation and meditation are biblical therapeutic disciplines. Meditation involves thinking around something we have received with a view to a response. Contemplation involves attending on God without any active thought process. This may be a little too ‘mystical’ for many Christians – indeed, the juxtaposition of ‘transcendental’ with ‘meditation’ sets all manner of alarm bells ringing. But what use is meditation if it is not transcendent? Only by opening ourselves up beyond our limits of words and thoughts can we truly begin to apprehend Him whose ways and thoughts are quite beyond ours.
Silence in the Christian life is not non-communication: it can move more than words. It is impossible not to communicate with God: whether it is stony or golden, silence speaks. ‘In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin: but he that refraineth his lips is wise‘ (Prov 10:19). There is manifestly a time for shutting up, not least when we need to listen. Meaningful fellowship will be replete with silence. Sharing, praying and baring one’s soul before another creates deep bonds of love. Silences which follow are rarely awkward or self-conscious because the silence is still speaking.
‘There was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour‘ (Rev 8:1). In the awesome presence of God is an awesome silence. Heaven is not all about praising Him with hallelujahs. Silence is active liturgy and dynamic worship: you don’t need to sing the latest Matt Redman song for your spiritual life to flourish. We move only slowly into deep silence as we become aware of the numinous presence of God. Prayer then becomes a combination of quiet and talk, stillness and secret prayers, until we reach the stage when meditation and contemplation take over and the spiritual life is hidden with Christ in God.
We speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden. ‘Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit‘ (1Cor 2:9f). If eyes have not seen, ears have not heard, and minds cannot comprehend, then silence before God is a wholly appropriate response: ‘Be silent, O all flesh, before the Lord: for he is raised up out of his holy habitation‘ (Zech 2:13).
Don’t leap to open your mouth, because words are so often inadequate: our logic is puny and reason insignificant. Pause, wait, and listen. Only when we are able to let go of everything within us, all desire to see, to know, to taste and to experience the presence of God, may we truly approach an experience of that presence. All our defences, pretences, guilts and shames are viewed in our nakedness before God; and when confronted honestly, it will place us in a deeper truth and so a deeper reality. With all human senses in abeyance, the ensuing silence enables an expectant listening.
We are only able to hear God truly when we have ceased to listen, because there is a higher kind of listening which demands a lower kind of silence. Invisible reality overwhelms us. Ego is lost. Time stands still. We step into a new dimension of eternity. We become still and know that God is God.