Invitation to Solitude and Silence [A Review]

…all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own room.

So says scientist and Christian philosopher/theologian Blaise Pascal. And I tend to agree with him. Silence and solitude are on the endangered list of our society. For many, they are relics of a bygone era, antiquated practices obstructing efficiency and productivity. As I have said elsewhere, our love of noise is equaled by our disdain of silence.

Yet for the Christian, rest found in silence and solitude is essential to what it means to be human. Christians have long held to humankind being made in the image of God; we are God’s ikons, taking our posture and practices from the One we find incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth. I recently heard that in our culture “Yet these three remain: productivity, efficiency, and speed, but the greatest of these is speed.” (Phil Kenneson, Slow Church Conference, 2014). If this is true, living lives that incorporate silence and solitude into intentional rhythms of life are truly subversive.

Silence and solitude are countercultural ways of life.

Taking her cues from 1 Kings 19:1-19, Ruth Haley Barton leads us into a guided journey she has taken herself. Or, more accurately, and to use her language, it is an invitation extended to us by God.

For it is a wonderful thing to be invited. Not coerced or manipulated, but truly invited to the home of someone you have looked forward to getting to know, to a party with fun people, on a date with someone who is intriguing. There is something about being invited that makes the heart glad. Someone is seeking me out, desiring my presence enough to initiate an encounter. (p. 16)

A beckon, a question, a search: God is in the pursuit business.

It is a particular invitation to coupling of solitude and silence. This is intentional in that it forces us beyond the stereotypical understanding of Christian spirituality, namely Scripture and prayer. Yes, these are integral and make their way through the book. However, for Barton

…I have chosen to write about solitude and silence because I believe silence is the most challenging, the most needed and the least experienced spiritual discipline among evangelical Christians today. It is much easier to talk about it and read about it than to actually become quiet. We are a very busy, wordy and heady faith tradition. Yet we are desperate to find ways to open ourselves to our God who is, in the end, beyond all of our human constructs and human agendas. (p. 18-19)

With bringing us theology and practices girded in solitude and silence as her goal, Barton sets off and does just that.

Beginning with her own story of busyness, productivity, and noise, she gives her own narrative that sounds familiar; I’d venture to say a good majority of Americans could have written it. The difference, however, is the approach she took through reflection and allowing her desperation to be an invitation, not a roadblock. As she says,

As strange as it may sound, desperation is a really good thing in the spiritual life. Desperation causes us to be open to radical solutions, willing to take all manner of risk in order to find what we are looking for. Desperate ones seek with an all-consuming intensity, for they know that their life depends on it…Here [in solitude and silence] we give in to desperation and desire until God comes to us and does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. (p. 30, 33)

From here Barton lays out a scaffolding of how to enter into solitude and silence. Time, space, and posture all come into play in these exercises. Again, in a faith tradition (over)emphasizing intellectual assent to the point of becoming synonymous with following Jesus, being aware of the importance physical elements of solitude and silence can be somewhat jarring. Being aware of the posture we take when sitting, what time of day works best, and when our contexts best give themselves to us for silence are essential. We are not following Jesus and accepting God’s invitation in a vacuum. These things matter.

As we follow these general guidelines, Barton wants us to find rest for body, mind, and soul alike. Our propensity to gnosticize (material = bad, spiritual = good) Christianity is rampant, leaving us bewildered by what it could mean to love God with our bodies. Can we rest ourselves to the point of being still? Can we allow ourselves to face our limitations only brought about by a silent mind? Is it possible to allow ourselves to simply be?

For Barton, these disciplines are not ends in themselves. They are the means by which we prepare ourselves for the further journey. Like Elijah in the wilderness, solitude and silence develop and equip us for what is ahead. Facing our emptiness and powerlessness are both the results of these practices and the prerequisites for facing the storm ahead. And through them, we find the presence of God alive and well, beckoning us back into the world “for the sake of others.” “Not only does the love of God come to us in solitude, the love of God begins to pour through us to others.” (p. 133) This disorients us and reorients our ideas of success in relation to others:

Success for me now is measured by whether I am living within the rhythms of work and rest, solitude and community, silence and word necessary so the quality of my presence with God and with people and tasks is characterized by love and attention, wisdom and discernment. (p. 133)

In other words, solitude and silence are both personal and public, both for the revitalization of the individual and the community.

If you are like me – swimming (and perhaps drowning) in the waters of productivity and busyness – this will be a book of respite. I know for me it is a resource akin to a balm after a scorching sunburn. I began reading it and couldn’t put it down as her personal stories, subversive theological perspective, and practices at the end of each chapter pricked a place in my heart and soul. If you were to see my copy of this book, you’d see highlights and stars in the margins on nearly every page. I’d like to share many, many more quotes from this book, but space would quickly run out.

Go get this much needed book. Buy it here.

The Fullness of Silence

…we are none of us very good at silence. It says too much. – Frederick Buechner

There is a growing trend that I have noticed for some time now and it is this: we are a culture constantly surrounding ourselves with and producing noise. It is next to impossible to be anywhere public and there not be a television (or multiple televisions), music, or some form of connection to the internet. Be it supplied by others or of our own doing, we often feel ill-equipped to face the day without noise, be it visual and/or auditory. The socially accepted norm is to envelop ourselves with distracting, noise-producing things, much to the neglect of the world around us.

This has led me to wonder about the why and the how of this and their results. As I ponder these things and their relation to life in general and in following Jesus in particular, I can’t shake the following thought: Our love of noise is equaled by our disdain of silence. Why do we shutter and run from silence? How did this come to be? What are its results?

Liturgies

All of us participate in liturgies everyday of our lives. The rhythms, habits, and practices of our minds and bodies form us in ways both noticeable and unnoticeable, conscious and unconscious. Together they comprise our life and, therefore, it does us good to pause and reflect upon them every now and again.

Whether you consider yourself “religious” or not, you participate in a liturgy. Whether or not you consider yourself Protestant or Catholic, conservative or liberal, Baptist or Pentecostal, you join in ecclesial liturgies that form you in particular ways. It is the inherent nature of life: we employ, cooperate, and perpetuate forms of life carried out through embodied practices.

Peal back these liturgies and you will find a story which each liturgy gives flesh to. Take them to their end and you will find daily habits employed in the workplace, the neighborhood, and in creation. Liturgies never stand alone: they always point back to a communal story and forward to an embodied life.

So, the way you worship on Sunday is a liturgy. They way you move through your workday is a liturgy. The manner in which you grocery shop is a liturgy. All have meaning, all have a story, all have a practiced way of life regardless of these things being known or not.

The interesting thing I find is that many liturgies, both sacred and, to borrow a term from Wendell Berry, desecrated, view silence similarly. They both relegate and/or eradicate silence.

Take a look at many of our modern day Christian liturgies. Many of them have no room for silence, but plenty of room for continual song, sermon, and other verbalization.  We fill our worship time with a parade of noise, yet little time of being still before God. Pomp and circumstance take the stage over as we create one way streets between both each other and God in efforts to create worship services that begin and end on time. This is vital because our communal liturgies give shape to our individual, everyday liturgies. There is an intimate connection between what we do on Sunday and what happens the rest of the week.

Likewise, and not too surprisingly, our desecrated liturgies have little time for silence. For many of us, the moment we wake to the moment we sleep is filled with noise. From morning television, to radio/ipod saturated car rides to work/school, to instant access to an overwhelming inundation of info with the swipe of a finger, we fill our moment-by-moment worlds with noise. We add to this noise ourselves in myriad of ways.

Again, these liturgies form and shape us in ways we don’t always see. Yet in the end they seem to say: We have decided to keep ourselves so consumed that we don’t recognize our need for silence.

Are we afraid of silence?

The eradication of silence within our culture seems to stem from an unhealthy fear of silence. Try and sit with a group of people silently for more than 2 minutes and you’ll soon see; we can’t deal with silence. I think the reason for this is two fold (although there are more reasons, I’m sure):

1. In our culture we are consumed with productivity. We strive for efficiency, potency, and timeliness in all we do. When things aren’t being produced, we often will quickly discard the activity. In regards to silence, we have fooled ourselves into thinking it is an empty thing. Furthermore, since there aren’t any obvious quantifiable results, we think nothing is actually taking place. We prefer to be washed over in white noise than the stillness of silence. We prefer to speak over the silence.

2. When we do allow for silence, we find it reveals far too much about ourselves. Thus, we are fearful of it. It is much easier to anesthetize ourselves with distraction and noise than to face the revealing nature of silence. Like Jesus in the wilderness, we are often faced with our own beasts in silence. Again, we fool ourselves into thinking it much easier to move from one thing to next without silence. We think we can enter into the world as non-reflective beings unaware of our own character and actions.

Some Outcomes

As a result, many of us live lives of (somewhat) controlled chaos marked by a frenetic pace, leaving us weary and weathered. We have somehow found ourselves moving at the speed of the noise we are enveloped by. Similarly, we create a host of noise through our talking and writing, our conferences and meetings, our Skype calls and Facebook statuses sans silence. We have fashioned our technologies and liturgies and now they have fashioned us.

Where we once found dialogue, we now have individual monologues passing each other masked as a conversation. Where we once relied on neighborly relationships, we now have isolated strangers settling for fearful waves separated by fences and driveways. Where there once was a season of faithful planting followed by patient growth, we have superseded it with a chemicals and poisons. Where we once prayed, we now shop.

Communication – the means by which relationships flourish – has been usurped by noise.

Why we need silence

So, in a world where silence is seemingly banished, why would we need it? It seems to me that the aforementioned reasons of fear and non-reflective lives acquiescing to noise-centered lives need to be redeemed through incorporating silence into our individual and communal lives.

Silence opens us up to adopting the postures of participation over domination. Participation entails conversation between beings; domination entails pushing one’s agenda onto another. Participation revels in interdependence; domination seeks independence. Participation engenders a posture of patience; domination is hasty and quick to judge. It seems to me that our noise is the product of our attempts to dominate.

Silence gives us a posture of participation resulting in practices of participation. This manifests itself primarily as listening. In silence we are able to listen first and speak afterwards. We begin to recalibrate the order of communication: listening and then speaking. Too often we speak to God, others, ourselves, and the created order without listening. Silence before these beings allows us to hear their voices and then to respond accordingly. Thus, and I think this is key, embracing silence is a means of non-violent subversion of noise, which actually redeems noise. Silence gives us the ears and the eyes to filter out the noise seeking to do violence to us and through us via exploitation, abuse, and power-wielding. Through silence we find the way to navigate peacefully through the all-encompassing waters of noise. We can enter into the noise without adding to it due to the discernment and wisdom we gain by silently attending to God, others, ourselves, and creation first.

This manner of engaging the world seems especially pertinent for Christians. In a day and age where we are often known for speaking first – entering into means of communication marked by domination – we would do well to balance and harmonize our activity in the world rooted in silence. This does not mean we never speak; rather, we know when and how to speak because we have first been intentional about patiently making room for the other in silence. As Jesus was known for his times of prayer and solitude, we too ought to be marked by a decidedly Christian silence.

In silence may we listen and then pray. May we listen and then love our neighbor and enemy. May we listen and then rightly steward the earth. This, I believe, will begin to demonstrate the fullness of silence.

How has silence been relegated or eradicated from your life – both individually and communally?

Who have you engaged with – be it God, others, yourself, or creation – without being silent first?

What am I missing? Tell me about your experience with silence.