Intentional silence, even for a mature Christian, can often feel either scary or superfluous. But when we make time for silence we are carving out space for transformation.
My first experience of communal silence was on a visit to a French Benedictine monastery. It was a field trip from Canterbury to Le Bec Heloin the monastery which had sent the first Archbishop of Canterbury on mission north into the wilds of the Anglo-Saxons. That first experience of communal silence was awkward in the extreme. I can still remember the discomfort of eating soup at a table across from others I didn’t know in silence. Now I find I crave the type of silence where God’s voice has less competition.
Silence was on the agenda from Wednesday evening to Thursday morning at the second residency of the spiritual direction certificate program I’m attending. And here’s my confession: as the silent day approached, I felt positively giddy. I knew by experience that deep in the silence I’d find meaty soul food.
After supper I walked to the dock of a small pond and took up residence for hours. I watched small schools of sunfish flow through the watergrasses and tiny long-nosed fish wriggle into the bottom muck, send up a cloud and then reach out to grasp what rose. I heard monster fish thrashing about on the pond’s edge. Clouds streaked over the treeline to the west and I settled in for a sunset.
It felt like I was capturing something gorgeously indulgent and yet basic to human creation. I was observing God’s creativity with God. Even though I was watching a purely ordinary midwestern summer evening at a pond, silence helped me to be present on the earth in a way I rarely am. I’m usually held captive by my to-do list. I’m usually ten steps ahead. But that day by witnessing beauty with the Creator, I was adding my small voice to His, “It is good.” I was worshipping God in the present moment.
In Genesis 3:8 God had come to walk in the cool of the evening with Adam and Eve when he “found” them hiding. I’ve always wondered if that was their nightly ritual. I imagine God meandering through the garden with Adam and Eve after dinner, showing them that day’s newly bloomed flowers or picking a pomegranate, breaking it open and offering them a taste of the crimson jewels. Each night I imagine Adam and Eve had the privilege of seeing the loving creativity of God and speaking back to Him: “Yes, it is good.” But when God came for their nightly ramble and Adam and Eve were hiding, praise was lost in shame. Doxology was lost in narcissism.
On July first, a month before my second residency, my dad and mom flew all of us to Provence for a week of family vacation. Thursday night was the culmination. We drove to a hillside town overlooking the Luberon mountains and sat down to an unforgettable meal. Wine flowed plentifully as did the lively conversation with all of my siblings. As we enjoyed course after course, the sunset unfolded turning the village across from us deep ochre. It was the type of night that deserved a soundtrack. But, my favorite part of the evening? I loved glancing over at my dad in his pink checked shirt. My dad was reveling in our joy. He took pleasure in every selection, every mouthful we took, every remark of pleasure. It was extravagance in the extreme. Extravagant love. Extravagant grace.
It was an image of God our Father. God fills our world with extravagance, sets a table before us day after day and invites us to sit with Him. But in the speed with which we live our lives, we forget to taste and see that He is good. We forget the rhythms of doxology.
In silence, we get off the merry-go-round of a too-busy life and remember to watch, to listen, and to be witness to the creation with the Creator. We remember to praise. The next morning, Robert, one of our professors, ended our silence with the Doxology. Our voices soared: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”