Silence is not just not talking

One of the pleasures of browsing books and desultory reading is coming across little gems that you hadn’t anticipated. For one reason or another, Dixie had pulled Nurturing Silence in a Noisy Heart, a a little book by Wayne E. Oates published in the late 1970s, off the shelf. I had bought it on a whim years ago at library book sale.

The book was laying on our bed last night, so I picked it up and started reading and was hooked pretty quickly. Here’s a bit on silence as not simply the absence of noise (quoting Thomas Merton in the first paragraph):

Silence is a part of the rule of obedience which [Trappist monks] follow. This does not mean, however, that the “monk must never go out, never receive a letter, never have a visitor, never talk to anyone, never hear any news. He must distinguish what is useless and harmful from what is useful and salutary, and in all things glorify God…”

He uses the word “distinguish.” What does that mean about silence? Wrapped up in “distinguish” is the basic principle of nurturing silence in a noisy heart. It means to “chose between” or to “choose from among” the many sounds—noises, tones, words—what is useful in creating within us a clean heart and right spirit. We put to the test all that we are about so say or not say; we are constantly choosing to listen, and choosing what we will need to listen to. We develop, under the tutelage of the Spirit of God, the power to discern and make choices in the feeding, nurturing, and growing of our personal realm of silence. Jesus suggests a kind of prayer that is not know for its “much speaking.” He taught simplicity of utterance. Your “yes” is to be “yes” and your “no” is to be “no.” Silence, then, is not just not talking. Silence is a discipline of choosing what to say and to what to listen. Nurturing silence, then, is the growth of the power of discernment as to what will be the focus of your attention, care, and commitment. (9)

Well, that’s pretty profound, I thought to myself as I closed the book, grabbed my smartphone, and started watching Letterman clips on YouTube. Perhaps not profound enough, I guess.

These are words I need to heed. I have a lot of alone time, relatively speaking, but I don’t have a lot of silence, because I tend to fill my alone time with the noise of the internet. My excuse is that true silence is boring, but the reality is probably that silence is scary. In silence we begin to think about things we otherwise wouldn’t. We begin to realize things about ourselves that we’d rather ignore. God is given room to speak, when it would be much more comfortable to push his voice away with YouTube, Buzzfeed, Facebook, movies, work, etc.

Of course, none of these things aren bad in and of themselves, and sometimes it’s okay to just “escape,” but the danger is that we (I) simply start filling every space with this stuff, so that every waking moment is filled with noise of one kind or another. Smartphones with large data plans don’t help.

We need silence to quiet our hearts, to restore us, “reset” us from the noise, the outside voices, the cacophony of our world, so that we can hear God again, so that we can know who we are again.

 

4 thoughts on “Silence is not just not talking

  1. Toni

    And your blog has been silent for a month now, though I’ve heard your ‘voice’ on Facebook.

    There’s always so much clamour for our attention, so many voices calling and interesting possibilities for entertainment and gratification. Youtube can easily become a bottomless pit for me, of old TV programs and films I wanted to see but never did – so easy to become the videot I’d naturally despise.

    The internet is *potentially* neutral, although I’m not at all convinced it really is, and should be such a powerful tool for reaching people – Randall models an attitude I’m trying to learn, of being online for the benefit of others, rather than just one’s own pleasure, and he seems to have found a way to live the Thomas Merton quote. Increasingly these days I’d love to just ditch the computer, reclaim the time spent and become more productive, but it has become an almost essential tool for living in a modern culture.

    Maybe this is one of the things I need to hear, to help me learn about filtering input and output, to be more effective?

  2. Toni

    “Silence is not just not talking”

    It can mean the person you thought you were not talking to has actually walked away. 😉

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