today's world we find ourselves busy doing God's work. Spending
time in silence with God seems like an unreachable goal. But with
a little practice, we can learn how spending time in silence will
increase the reach of our relationship with God and others.
is good for you, so they say. That's what my grandmother used to
tell me. Grandma never took a course in systematic theology, but
as usual she was in a league with the best of them. "Be still
and know that I am God," the Lord spoke through the psalmist.
Mother Teresa claimed that "God is the friend of silence."
And Jesus often escaped to the mountains for periods of silent prayer.
grandmother, the psalms, the saints, and Jesus all agree: Silence
is good for you. It's good for your soul. It's good for your prayer
life. It may even be good for your body. It's also good for busy
pastors. I like things that are good for me; that's why I cat Grape-Nuts
cereal for breakfast. So I decided to "try" silence, thinking
it couldn't be that hard.
years ago I made my first attempt at a 24-hour silent retreat. I
went to Pacem in Terris (Latin for "peace on earth"),
a Catholic retreat center nestled on 220 acres of Minnesota woods.
24 hours I lived in a hermitage without running water, a phone,
TV, radio, human voices, mail, computers, or even the soft hum of
my refrigerator. Only God, me, and silence.
to my surprise, I really liked this spiritual discipline... for
about 45 minutes. After two hours, I began staring at my watch.
What in the world am I going to do for 22 more hours? Against the
explicit instructions of Pacem's spiritual director, I converted
my hermitage into a backwoods pastor's study. I read books and journals,
outlined my next sermon series, made to-do lists, and kicked myself
for not being in the office.
to say, it was a disappointing excursion. I thought God was the
friend of silence. I thought silence would produce fruit for my
ministry. Instead, I felt bored, frustrated, and useless.
the first lesson of silence: it's hard. "Try silence, it's
good for you," the experts seem to agree. Unfortunately practicing
silence is much harder than eating Grape-Nuts. Of all the classic
spiritual disciplines, silence poses some of the greatest obstacles,
especially for pastors.
First, because pastors, like everyone else, live in a noise-saturated
world. Life never bombarded the psalmist or even my grandmother
with traffic jams, junk mail, telemarketers, pagers, and Barney
on video. One social observer dubbed the 20th century as The Age
of Noise. In board meetings, counseling sessions, Bible studies,
and sermons, the spoken word is one of our greatest assets.
external noise is only half the battle. Masters of prayer agree
that internal noise creates the greatest barrier to silence. One
writer on prayer defined internal noise as "the inner turmoil,
the whirl of thoughts, the drive of desire, the restlessness and
worries of the mind, the burden of care, the wall of dullness."
In other words when we enter into silence, our restless heart starts
blabbing and won't shut up.
relate. During my initial 24-hour silent retreat, my mind immediately
kicked into high gear. Did I call Mr. Syverson about his surgery?
When will I plan the new members class? Shouldn't I be in the office?
Will people think I'm lazy? Why do I feel so bored and empty when
I'm not busy?
through this internal noise is a positive thing. The fears, the
restlessness, turmoil-these wounds and more are buried deep in my
heart. It often takes silence to draw them out, exposing them to
Christ's healing grace.
silence is difficult. Actually, entering silence is a lot like eating
a pineapple: There's juicy fruit in there--sweet, delectable, nutritious-but
the barklike layers intimidate most of us. It's possible to cut
through the bark, tasting the sweetness of silence with God. Even
for noise-riddled, talkative pastors.
2: It's Possible-Even for Busy Pastors
eight years of silent retreats, I've discovered some practical tips
for entering into silence.
Check your motives. The primary purpose of silence isn't relaxation,
stress reduction, or simply time alone. These are often beneficial
byproducts. But silence that doesn't connect with God and give birth
to prayer can easily turn us back into ourselves. Ultimately the
purpose of silence is to meet with the God who longs to meet with
pastors we know that God wants to speak to people-even us! Unfortunately
we're often so distracted by noise that we can't hear him. During
seasons of silence, we lay aside the distractions; we focus; and
we listen for God's still, small voice.
Find a place. Don't try to do It at home or at your own church.
You'll never get away from the phone, the fax, the mail, and the
unexpected visitor. Find an isolated cabin, an empty church building,
or a spot in the woods. Because Catholics have been practicing silence
and solitude for centuries, your local diocese office can usually
recommend a few places for silent retreats.
Plow through resistance. I've mentioned the difficulties during
silence; there's also difficulty before silence. You'll find every
excuse not to go. My family needs me. The church needs me. I need
more time to work on my sermon series.
months ago, a friend in the church casually asked, "Have you
been on one of your silent prayer retreats lately?" Swelling
with pride, I explained that the urgency of pastoral duties prevented
me from getting away. "I just can't justify the time away,"
I concluded. My Mend gently rebuked me. "We need you to go.
We need a pastor who regularly dwells in God's presence and listens
to his voice. If you won't go for yourself, then please do It for
us." I immediately blocked off a day for a silent retreat.
Travel light. On my first silent retreat, I carried a small
cartload of stuff-theology books, a novel, a few commentaries for
my next sermon series, my calendar, and of course, a few volumes
on prayer and silence (I'd rather analyze prayer than actually practice
It). But all this information merely cranked up the volume on my
internal noise problem. Slowly, at the quiet guidance of Pacem's
director, I weaned myself off of my load of books. The cartload
became a briefcase, then the briefcase gave way to a tote bag with
a Bible, prayer journal, and one book on prayer. Traveling light
provides another way to minimize internal noise.
also learned to enter silent prayer with a light agenda. For a while
I traveled with a light load of books but a very heavy spiritual
agenda-read and outline the book of Revelation, memorize Psalm 119,
or pray for all 500 church members. Generally speaking, silence
is a time for light agendas. It's a time to bask in the warmth of
one portion of God's Word.
example, a few months ago I spent most of my time quietly praying
through Psalm 63, especially the first verse: "0 God... my
soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you." I let the verse
soak into my soul. I prayed and journaled about the unhealthy ways
I try to satisfy my thirst for God. I walked in the woods, asking
God to remind me of the spiritually thirsty people in my church.
This was a light agenda with a high impact.
Waste time with Jesus. But what am I supposed to do for 24 hours
of silence? That question haunted me on my first silent prayer retreat.
I think I know the answer now: not much. According to Henri Nowen,
prayer is simply "being with Jesus and wasting time with him."
Technically we'll do something in silence. But silence is primarily
about being with Jesus rather than doing for Jesus. For ministers
who are busy doing for Jesus, extended periods of silence invite
us to "waste" a day with Jesus.
a privilege and delight beyond words! However, most busy ministers
feel guilty and never take time for silence. I wonder though: If
we can't model intimacy with Jesus Christ, can we really ask our
people to experience It?
may be thinking, "I understand the need to waste time with
Jesus, but how do I explain It?" I don't think most church
members would complain If you simply said, "I need some extra
time to listen to God for my ministry for the life of the church,
for you and your families, and for my own soul. I don't want to
minister to you out of my own emptiness. I want to minister out
of Christ's fullness working through me. A silent retreat will enable
me to do that."
Keep practicing silence. As I read the classics on prayer, I
keep coming across a rather strange word about silence-practice.
"A life properly lived includes practice in silence,"
one author exhorted. I practice hitting softballs, but do I really
need to practice silence? Practice implies discipline. It implies
that I won't be perfect the first time I try It But It also suggests
that with perseverance I will get better. So If I want to slice
through the tough exterior of the discipline of silence, 12 need
to do It more than once. Silence must saturate every part of my
life, weaving itself into the fabric of my soul.
3: It Will Bear Fruit
silence worth practicing? Is It worth plowing through the tough
outer bark? Is there really any fruit in there? Or is silence just
a fancy way to get rest and escape the rigors of ministry?
silence leads us to rest. Without the toxins of internal and external
noise, your body will nearly collapse and you'll sleep like a child
again. Of course, this isn't a bad thing; It's one of the hidden
fruits of silence. Our noisy, frantic world overstimulates our bodies
and minds. During silent prayer times, God speaks deep into our
souls, but he often begins by refreshing our weary bodies.
silence an excuse to escape the rigors of ministry? Absolutely not.
Silent prayer times actually lead us deeper into ministry. I can't
imagine the busyness of Mother Teresa's schedule washing lepers'
feet, speaking to powerful leaders, directing her sisters, entertaining
guests, writing letters, founding new orders. Why didn't she lose
focus? Partially because her silent prayer and ministry were intimately
connected. "The more we receive in silent prayer," she
contended, "the more we can give in our active lives. We need
silence in order to touch souls."
a similar manner, the Russian monks of old said that our passion
for ministry is like a sauna. If a sauna door remains open, eventually
the heat escapes and the fire dies. Sometimes you have to shut the
door so the fire can grow hot. Likewise in ministry If we're always
opening our mouth, flapping and yapping for God, the fire in our
souls will slowly grow cold. We may say the right words, but they'll
lack passion and heat. Plan times to keep your mouth shut. Enter
into silence and let the fire of Christ's love warm your soul.
greatest fruit of silence, however, isn't ministry-related. It's
a growing intimacy with God. For Christians silence isn't the absence
of noise, It's the presence of God. As we face our own brokenness
and fears, we listen for God's words of truth and correction. But
silence is especially the time to receive God's healing words of
love. Henri Nouwen defined silence as "the place in which you
can listen for the voice of the One who calls you beloved."
The more we practice silence, the more we'll enjoy the company of
Jesus Christ. This is the ultimate fruit of silence.
why those who begin the journey of silence hunger for more of It
Silent retreats are a good way to start. But you'll also start finding
snatches of silence in the routine of ministry.
author called them "crumbs of wasted time" for silent
prayer. The morning cup of coffee, the quiet moments between meetings,
the 10 minutes before bed, even the opening prayer before a church
meeting-these are small opportunities to practice silence and draw
close to God.
of Ninevah, a monk from the 7th century, once said, "Silence
brings a fruit that tongue cannot describe. In the beginning we
have to force ourselves to be silent... but after a while a certain
sweetness is born ... and the body is drawn almost by force to remain
I first started practicing the discipline of silence, I found Isaac's
perspective a little warped (except for the part about forcing ourselves
to be silent). Perhaps silence works If you're a 7th century monk,
but I'm a 20th century pastor with a busy church and four loud children.
Ten years later I must confess that Isaac of Ninevah, in cahoots
with my grandma and a host of other witnesses, is absolutely correct.
Silence does bring a fruit that tongue can't describe. Its sweetness
keeps drawing me to return to God through silence.
silence. You'll like It
Woodley is senior pastor at Cambridge United Methodist Church in