Practicing silence

You may have noticed I didn’t post anything new from Monday on last week. That’s because I was busy prepping two teachings, one on love vs. knowledge (I Cor 8)  and the second on silence and prayer. Since I have one more teaching to do for Wednesday, rather than not blog at all, I thought I’d adapt a teaching. Hope you enjoy it!

A friend recently directed me to a catechesis of Pope Benedict’s “On the Silence of Jesus.” The full article has much to chew on, but I was struck by the distinction he made between the silence we need to need to take in the Word of God:

“The interplay of word and silence that marks the prayer of Jesus during his entire earthly life — especially on the cross — also touches our own lives of prayer, in two ways. The first concerns our welcoming of God’s Word. Interior and exterior silence are necessary in order that this word may be heard. And this is especially difficult in our own day. In fact, ours is not an age which fosters recollection; indeed, at times one has the impression that people have a fear of detaching themselves, even for a moment, from the barrage of words and images that mark and fill our days.”

It is not possible to simply be quiet and find silence. Because of the distractions of our age, we have to practice silence. We can do things to things to help us practice. First off, we can do our best to manage the distractions that pummel us before attempting silence. We can find a space that relaxes us. We can turn off our phone or computer.

Secondly, we can manage the distractions within our own mind. Some people spend a few minutes making “to do” lists of the things that rush into their heads as soon as there is a vaccuum of quiet. Others spend some time journaling first. Some read scripture. Anything that quiets your spirit, settles you down can be helpful. Just make sure you give yourself a time limit so your silence doesn’t become a planning session.

Finally, If you’re new to silence, start small with five or ten minutes. Set a timer (hopefully one with a gentle chime) so you won’t be worried about how much time has passed.

Now you’re ready to practice silence. If that feels like falling off a cliff, try one of these approaches:

  • Meditate on a passage of scripture, particularly the stories of Jesus. Immerse yourself in the story: are you a member of the crowd? A disciple? The person interacting with Jesus? What do you see, hear, smell, feel? Imagine Jesus turning to you. What does he say? (This practice is called the Ignatian Exercises.)
  • Meditate on a passage of scripture by reading it slowly and repeatedly, as if savoring a fine meal. Read it listening for a word or phrase that stands out to you. Read again, listening for the importance of the word or phrase you heard the first time. Read again, listening for God’s invitation to you. (This practice is called Lectio Divina.)
  • Imagine yourself in a place you love to be, sitting with the Lord in a companionable silence. Lean against him like John, the beloved disciple. Just enjoy being with him.
  • Imagine yourself in a field and all your tasks and worries are balloons. Let them go and watch them float away from the ground. If you are being carried away by a balloon, pray a brief prayer (such as “Lord have mercy,” or “I surrender,”), release the balloon and return to earth. (This is a form of Centering Prayer.)
  • Sit in silence and think about your brain sinking into your heart. As feelings arise, wordlessly pray the feelings and desires you experience.

Your time is up, take a couple of minutes to think about how this experience of silence was for you:

  • Did the silence “feel good” to you? How do you feel now that it is over? Would you try it again?
  • How did you experience God in the silence?
  • Did you receive any words or impressions in the silence that you think were from God? Record them.
  • What do you think some of the benefits of practicing silence might be for you?

An ability to “have successful silence” is not the mark of a good Christian or a bad Christian, The quality of our silence first speaks to where we are in our ability to tune our ears to God–like a muscle that needs to be exercised. Also, silence does not always lead us into communion with God. Some are not able to turn off their thoughts. Others never feel anything or cannot get over the feeling they are wasting their time. Still other feel keenly the distance between themselves and God. Pope Benedict has this to say:

“…Often in our prayer, we find ourselves before the silence of God; we experience a sense of abandonment; it seems to us that God is not listening and that He does not respond. But this silence of God – as Jesus also experienced – is not a sign of His absence. The Christian knows well that the Lord is present and that he is listening, even in the darkness of suffering, rejection and solitude…. an attentive, silent, open heart is more important than many words.”

If the silence you experience is that of desolation, spend time before the cross of Christ; he knows your abandonment as his own.


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