A while back, I came across an old article on The Awl titled How Silence Works: Emailed Conversations With Four Trappist Monks. It was an interesting piece to read, but one particular passage has stayed with me ever since. Upon being asked if he viewed his “vow of silence” (which is not technically a vow) as an act of sacrifice, one of the monks responded thusly:
I would not speak of the “sacrifice of words” except in relatively rare instances when a passion moves me to speak and I struggle to hold my tongue. The silence which is my natural habitat is not created by forcibly sacrificing anything. When a man and woman meet and fall in love they begin to talk. They talk and talk and talk all day long and can’t wait to meet again to talk some more. They talk for hours together, and never tire of talking and so talk late into the night, until they become intimate — and then they don’t talk anymore.
The phrasing was so poetic and elegant that it moved me, and I found myself thinking about it long after I finished with the piece. Mostly – beyond the loving language used to describe spiritual silence – I was struck by the thought of silence in any capacity as an inherently Christian or inherently loving act.
That’s because I tend to assume Christian silence is synonymous with restraint: that it happens when, as the monk indicates, I have to bite my tongue lest I speak rashly or with anger. Without realizing it, I’ve always viewed silence as a subtraction of something, a taking-away: a silencing of my own voice, a pulling-away of my words, a door closing, expression held back.
But silence need not always be that.
It certainly isn’t with my loved ones. Sometimes when my husband and I have gotten all our talking out and we’re simply spending time together relaxing, silence means contentment and intimacy. On car rides with my mom, in the quiet between our conversations, silence is a comfortable shared understanding: the mutual enjoyment of an experience together, without words required.
What does it mean to experience loving silence with God? Perhaps it’s something like what Jonah felt when “God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant”: a silent enjoyment of God’s gifts, whatever they may be for that day. Maybe it is something akin to what Job felt when his friends sat with him in silence for seven days and seven nights: the quiet of understanding, the quiet of companionship even in the midst of grief and pain. Maybe it is what Mary experienced when she sat at the feet of Jesus, simply listening to Him speak, while a household buzzed all around her: the silence of attentiveness, of adoration.
God enjoys speaking to us. God enjoys it when we want to speak to Him. But as Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is a time to speak and a time to be silent, and too many of us aren’t silent nearly often enough – or, when we are, we experience that silence as one of deprivation, restraint, and biting-back.
Loving silence is different. And if we want to experience that with God, it requires first that we set our distractions aside – or, if need be, get away from them entirely. When I think of times that I’ve experienced “loving silence” with God, it’s often when I’m out and about experiencing nature, literally removed from all the other things banging about for my attention.
It requires that we focus on God, and not ourselves: our needs, our wants, our wishes, our worries. And it requires, too, that we enjoy God: that we find out those parts of His nature, His identity, His love that we find particularly wonderful. That we entertain a nearly-playful curiosity about getting to know Him and finding out what He wants us to learn about Him. That we have a general interest and desire in learning more about the One we serve.
And in the end, I suspect, that’s why loving silence might come in fits and starts. It can’t be faked. You can fake worship. You can fake prayer. You can say all the right “Jesus answers” and, to the outside world and even to yourself, fake a good relationship with God. But you can’t fake desire. You can’t fake curiosity or adoration, not for very long. What loving silence demands of us more than anything is an authentic hunger for God.
With Ash Wednesday over, we’ve moved into the Lenten season. Easter is coming, but it isn’t yet here. And as we work our way through this solemn period, it might be enriching and meaningful to work on cultivating moments of loving silence with God, where we die to self and need and want enough to simply listen and look for Him, focus attention on Him, and enjoy all of who He is. Those moments – when we value Him for what He is and seek to learn more – will surely be their own reward.