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Tasting the Fruit of Silence
by Mathew Woodley


In 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.

Silence 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.

My 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.

Seven 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.

For 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.

Much 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.

Needless 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.

Silence Is Difficult

I learned 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.

Why? 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.

Unfortunately 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.

I can 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?

Plowing 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.

So 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.

LESSON 2: It's Possible-Even for Busy Pastors

After 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 us.

As 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.

A few 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.

I've 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.

For 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.

What 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?

You 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.

LESSON 3: It Will Bear Fruit

Is 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?

Yes, 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.

Is 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."

In 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.

The 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.

That's 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.

One 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.

Isaac 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 in silence."

I When 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.

Taste silence. You'll like It

Matt Woodley is senior pastor at Cambridge United Methodist Church in Cambridge, Minnesota.

© 2002 Group Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved.