The classes I teach are high-energy.
For the hour and a half that I have my students I am on: gesturing, giving examples, lecturing, encouraging discussion. They’re on, too, jumping in to answer questions or ask about something, learning how to dissect a text, laughing at an illustrative anecdote. When the class is over I slump into my car and drive home with nothing on but the radio. I don’t want to talk. I don’t want to hear anything demanding. I want to sit in silence or near-silence, and just be.
I’ve been feeling that way about the rest of the world lately, too. My heart broke over news of the attacks in Paris; the news is relentless, painful, and sad. I read about it voraciously for a while, but then became overwhelmed as people debated and discussed it on Twitter, on forums, on news articles, everywhere: what’s happening and why it happened, what will happen next, what we’re doing, what we should do.
And it’s not just Paris, either. Sometimes it seems to me like everyone everywhere is talking about everything. That culturally, in America, we can’t stand silence any more. We can’t cope with the space between words, and so everywhere is filled up with constant noise. If there’s an issue of the day, everyone has to discuss it ad nauseum. If there is no issue of the day we discuss old issues, or things like shoes and best vacation spots and how to keep your identity safe. If there are no words, streaming radio offers us music and talk 24-7. And Christians are hardly exempt; we fill up our spaces, too, with debates on the most granular of matters in an effort to define who and how and what we should be.
It’s too much.
In Ireland sits an island called Skellig Michael. On this small island at what was once thought to be the end of the world, medieval monks hewed a stone staircase that leads to a small monastic settlement 600 feet above sea level. The place was meant to be remote, isolated; even now tourists can only reach it on certain days when the weather permits and when boats are willing to travel, and the journey to the top is dangerous enough that several tourists have died making the journey.
I saw Skellig Michael, sometimes called Great Skellig, from Bray Head on the Iveragh Peninsula. At the time, moved by its beauty, I was nevertheless mystified: what on earth would compel these monks to seclude themselves from humanity? What was it about their desire to be close to God that convinced them to abandon human community and flee, a group of twelve at most, to a bleak and remote outpost far from civilization?
Now, though, I understand the urge that must have moved them. Let me be clear: I don’t advocate a spirit of isolationism. Humans need community, and Christians most of all, and we must not be so preoccupied with not being of the world that we forget we are meant to be in it. But I do think that in our current civilization we must prize a momentary withdrawal. We must, for our own sake, seek the silence.
It’s not that the noise in the world is bad. Many of the words in the air need to be said, and to be heard. As a scholar and a Christian I believe that thoughtful engagement with the world in a Christlike manner is what is expected of us. But sometimes the constant input on issues from significant to minor is overwhelming; after too much of it I find myself restless, irritable, and unable to focus on God. Too much noise grinds down the soul. It isn’t nourishing, even when it’s supposed to be.
So seek the silence. Turn everything off. The internet, the tv, the music, the conversations, all of it. Withdraw. Follow the example of Elijah, who when overwhelmed left his servant and fled a day into the wilderness – where he was nourished and was then commanded to further withdrawal until he reached Horeb and spent the night in a cave (1 Kings 19). It was there in that remote place that Elijah encountered God. Please know: if you seek the silence and the stillness, God will be present with you. And in those moments of silence and stillness we can enjoy simple communion with God: not a time in which we are learning, or praying, or seeking, or growing, but in which we can simply rest and clear our minds and be present with Him where He is.
So take a break. Step away. (Yes, even from this blog.) Go and seek the silence, and learn to make such silence-seeking a practice in your life. God speaks in the stillness, and the noise not only overwhelms His voice, it can overwhelm our sense of His presence in our lives.
There is a blessing in the space between words.