When it comes to envisioning a life of prayer or what it means to live a spiritual life, silence and solitude hold a special place in the Christian imagination. We call our Bible studies “quiet times” and recall passages like Elijah hearing the still small voice of God in the silence after the storm in 1 Kings 19, or the words of the psalmist giving voice to the cry of God in Psalm 46, entreating those who would listen to “Be still and know that I am God.”
It is not only from the Bible that we hear the value of silence held in such high regard. Theologians, mystics, and pastors throughout the history of the church have clung to silence as one of the primary ways we open ourselves to hear the voice of God. Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard has a particular love for silence, saying, “The first thing, the unconditional condition for anything to be done, consequently the very first thing that must be done is: create silence, bring about silence; God’s word cannot be heard, and if in order to be heard in the hullabaloo it must be shouted deafeningly with noisy instruments, then it is not God’s Word; create silence!” 1
Yet, for its central focus within both scripture and tradition, it can be very difficult to “create silence.” When was the last time you experienced true silence? Have you even ever actually experienced such a thing? In our current bustling society filled with the near constant sounds of cities, highways, and ringtones, solitude and silence are a hard thing to come by. When you add to that our constant connection to our neighbors through our computers, phones, and devices, it’s a wonder if we ever experience any amount of silence or solitude.
It has certainly been a rare thing for me. When I moved from the forests of upper Minnesota to the small city of Holland, Michigan a few years ago, one of the first things I noticed was the sheer quantity of noise. Even on the rare occasions that I managed to find a free pocket of time to sit in solitude amid a schedule filled with seminary classes, homework, and internships, there was rarely any silence. Air conditioners, neighbors, construction, a fairly consistent 1 AM train that feels the need to make its presence known; somehow, no matter where or when I found time to be alone, the noise of the city would constantly find me.
“It was not the silence in the world around me that I needed to find, but rather a stillness within myself.”
Which was why I was excited when I was given the chance to spend a few days at a nearby hermitage. In preparation for the trip, I confess I allowed my imagination to run a bit wild. I envisioned a truly silent place awaiting me set amidst the rolling hills and forests of central Michigan. I pictured myself alone in some wildflower field, surrounded by nothing but sky and forest for miles and miles and in that idyllic location, finding true silence.
When I arrived at the hermitage, I unpacked and almost immediately set out with my journal and stack of books, filled with anticipation and excitement to try to experience the silence that I imagined awaited me. Having found my way to a decently wild-flowered field and a conveniently placed bench, I sat down and began my practice of centering prayer. It only took me a few moments to realize that I was not as alone as I thought.
All around me, creation itself was singing. Birds twittered overhead. Cicadas sent out their constant hum. The wind stirred the trees and grasses beside my bench. A symphony of creation was in a state of constant crescendo all around me.
As the music of nature washed over me, I came awake to the realization that I had it backwards the whole time. The world is awash with the sounds of all things singing praise to God. It was not the silence in the world around me that I needed to find, but rather a stillness within myself.
“Though we cannot ever truly control the world around us, we can control how we respond to it.”
We have very little control over the sounds of the world around us. The world is filled with the sounds of all creation giving praise to God. Even the noises of city can embody praise to the Creator. Of course, there will always be those things that break into our lives that are less praise-filled and demand our attention. The pace of life in the world has and will continue to be one defined by an ongoing rattle and hum and a distinct lack of easy access to solitude and silence. So, if we are to “create silence” as Kierkegaard suggests, then we must first turn to ourselves. Though we cannot ever truly control the world around us, we can control how we respond to it. It is within ourselves that we must seek to craft the kind of solitude and silence that welcomes in the awareness of God. After all, the Psalm does not say “Make still the world around you and know that I am God,” but rather, “Be still, and know that I am God.”
This story doesn’t end with me finally finding the perfect silence within myself as I sat on that bench, or finally hearing a still small voice as I quieted my soul amidst the song of creation. I continue to struggle to silence my mind as I go to God in prayer. It continues to be difficult for me to be anything but slightly annoyed when the sounds of the highway interrupt a moment of prayerful stillness in a park. The journey to find stillness within is one that I will continue to walk. But in that moment, sitting amongst the wildflowers and the sounds of birds, insects, and the wind, I did have a moment of hope that with God’s help, the stillness of the psalmist and the silence of Kierkegaard could one day be found amidst the sounds of God’s creation.
Søren Kierkegaard, For Self-Examination/Judge Yourself, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H Hong, (Princeton University Press 1990), 47. ↩