How to Practice the Spiritual Discipline of Silence

When was the last time you experienced a few minutes of complete quiet? Is it even possible in our noise-saturated society?

When was the last time you experienced a few minutes of complete quiet? Is it even possible in our noise-saturated society?

Ringtones abruptly waken us in the morning. The voice of a beloved author reads her latest bestseller as we drive. The chitchat of coworkers interrupts our concentration on a project due yesterday. A small child questions for the umpteenth time, “Why?” We exercise while streaming informative podcasts. Our phones ding notifications incessantly.

Silence is awkward. Dead air on the radio makes us anxious. When discussion lulls during a meeting, we become uneasy. Quick, somebody say something! We turn on the TV to hear the voice of another human being to fend off the loneliness. We numb our relationship pain by streaming a favorite movie on demand.

Practicing the spiritual discipline of silence helps to restore the peace and clarity that eludes the soul of a weary Christian pilgrim.

What Is the Spiritual Discipline of Silence?

One author defines the spiritual discipline of silence as, “A regenerative practice of attending and listening to God in quiet, without interruption and noise. Silence provides freedom from speaking as well as from listening to words or music.”[i]

In this practice, Christians intentionally place themselves in a quiet place to focus on God and His presence. They refrain from speaking, move away from the voices of other people, and turn off technology and entertainment.

Susan Muto observes, “In a noise-polluted world, it is even difficult to hear ourselves think let alone try to be still and know God. Yet it seems essential for our spiritual life to seek some silence, no matter how busy we may be. Silence is not to be shunned as empty space, but to be befriended as fertile ground for intimacy with God.”[ii]

The Christian Scriptures Teach the Spiritual Discipline of Silence

In the opening of the book he authored, the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk was confused and demanded answers from God. Why were the wicked prospering in the nation? From his Holy Temple, God then answered and shared his own viewpoint. He assured Habakkuk that He certainly was not blind to the violence and evil on the earth. God was neither absent nor idle. God’s vision and plan for his people would certainly be fulfilled, but in a radically different way than the prophet had expected.

God’s words deeply affected Habakkuk.

But the LORD is in his holy temple;

let all the earth be silent before him.[iii]

In this passage, the term silent refers to a respectful silence filled with awe, a holy hush, a time without speaking. For Christians to practice this command, they must strive to create quietness in the clamor of noise that infiltrates their everyday lives.

Out of the silence, the prophet responded with a new perspective in a beautiful prayer of trust in God. With catastrophic events on the horizon, Habakkuk praised God for his splendor, salvation, and strength.

Suggestions to Practice the Discipline of Silence

1. Find an intentional place

Think of a quiet, safe place where you can escape from the racket and chaos of your life. A sacred space set apart to be with God where other voices cannot reach in, technology cannot distract, and intrusive sounds cannot interrupt.

  • A secluded spot in your home
  • Alone in your office or workspace
  • A quiet corner of a library
  • An isolated seat in a museum
  • A bench in a city park
  • A hiking trail in the woods
  • A solitary walk through your neighborhood or garden
  • A path by a lake
  • Sitting or walking on a beach

2. Set an intentional time

Make a sacred appointment. Put it on the calendar. Other responsibilities will easily push this appointment aside. Resist the call to attend to “higher priority” or “urgent” tasks.

  • Over a coffee break or lunch hour
  • While preschoolers are napping or after their bedtime
  • Before sunrise
  • Before the rest of your family begins their day
  • Arriving to your workspace before anyone else
  • In the evening after work
  • Early on a weekend morning

3. Intentionally listen

At first, we may feel lonely, awkward, fearful, or out of control. If this practice is new to you, start small. Ten minutes is a good place to start. Experiment with what works for your everyday reality.

  • Turn off your phone, iPad, laptop, and other technology.
  • Set a timer to keep from watching the clock.
  • You may be tempted to fill the noiselessness with words. Resist.
  • You may be tempted to do something in your isolation. Just be still or walk quietly.
  • Your thoughts will scream, “This is a complete waste of time!” It’s not.
  • Listen to the quiet.
  • Still your soul in the silence.
  • Turn your thoughts to God.

Calhoun encourages, “And as the silence settles in and nothing seems to be happening, we often struggle with the feeling that we are wasting time… As we remain in the silence, the inner noise and chaos will begin to settle… Silence is a time to rest in God. Lean into God, trusting that being with him in silence will loosen your rootedness in the world and plant you by streams of living water.”[iv]

Practicing the Spiritual Discipline of Silence Deepens a Christian's Relationship with God

When Christians create silence, they place themselves in a consecrated space to begin to hear the gentle Whisper of God. They become aware of their own sacred personhood in the Creator’s eyes, unattached to a career, another person, or perhaps most importantly, their electronic devices.

As the quiet and calm seeps into our harried soul, the chaos in our life is stilled for a few moments. We gain clarity and perspective. As we practice the spiritual discipline of silence, we come to echo the prayer of the poet John Greenleaf Whittier,

Drop Thy still dews of quietness,

Till all our strivings cease;

Take from our souls the strain and stress,

And let our ordered lives confess

The beauty of Thy peace.

[i] Calhoun, Adele Ahlberg, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, page 107.

[ii] Muto, Susan. In Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Calhoun, Adele Ahlberg, page 107.

[iii] See Habakkuk 2:20.

[iv] Calhoun, page 109.

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How Do I Draw Closer to God?

How practicing the spiritual disciplines can shape one’s intimacy with God.

Trina Dofflemyer takes a look at why spiritual disciplines – fasting, prayer, solitude, and others – are an important practice in the Christian's life.

Is it possible to capture the essence of a soul in a portrait? The master painter scaled the scaffolding propped against the wall of the monastery dining room. He painstakingly added a few brush strokes of color to his wall canvas. Climbing down, he stepped back and contemplated his work.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s renowned notebooks reflect his lifetime of study to anatomy, the science of movement, and perspective to fulfill his ambition of capturing the essence of the soul in his art. Through his fifteenth-century eyes, he was bringing to life one of the pivotal moments in the history of Christianity: Jesus had just told his disciples that one of them would betray him. In his Last Supper mural, Da Vinci labored to capture the disciples’ souls at that precise moment.

Sadly, the new technique Da Vinci used to paint the mural did not fare well for longevity. Pollution, humidity, and the dirty city air corroded and be-smudged the details. Over-zealous “restorers” covered the original peeling strokes by Da Vinci with their own blotches of paint. In the eighteenth century, Napoleon’s troops used the dining hall as an armory and stable, marring the painting by throwing stones and scratching at the figures. During World War Two, an allied bomb landed next to the dining hall, but the proactive placement of sandbags saved the painting.

Da Vinci’s bold and brilliant colors turned dull and flaked. The lines of expression in the Apostles’ faces were altered and blurred. The authentic Last Supper laid buried beneath centuries of abuse by nature and humankind. The “souls” of the disciples darkened and lacked their clear and vibrant spirit suggested by the original master artist.

God refers to human beings as his masterpieces,[i] but as Da Vinci’s Last Supper, everyday realities can dull and darken one’s relationship with God. Christians may find their souls feeling far from God.

Our ringtones abruptly waken us in the morning, and nonnegotiable responsibilities push us through the rest of our day. Our phone notifications ding incessantly and meetings eat up our hours. We take trips to social media to escape and distract. At night, we find ourselves unable to turn off our whirling minds and focus on conversation with the Divine.

Why is God’s voice beginning to sound so far away?

We consume what we want, where we want it, served exactly how we want it – right now, please! Lack of closure causes us anxiety, so we binge-watch entire series on the weekends. No need to wait for cliffhanger resolutions. We are encouraged to practice instantaneous self-pleasure as the key to happiness.

Why do I find life so unfulfilling and empty of meaning?

Our minds are preoccupied during the day with the images flashed on our screens and the words spoken by the prophets of our culture. At bedtime, we try to read our religious texts, but fall asleep from overload and exhaustion. We begin to hear pointed accusations against the Bible where it does not line up with “respected” cultural norms.

Why am I losing my faith in God?

Although there have been several partial attempts through the centuries to restore Da Vinci’s Last Supper to its original genius, in the 1980’s art experts attempted yet another process, this time to completion. For over 20 years, through magnification lenses the size of postage stamps, restorers cleaned and scraped over 500 years of dirt, glues, mold, and paint layers, tiny paint speck by tiny paint speck. [ii]

Today, once again, the Apostles’ expressions of anger, confusion, or grief immortalized in the Last Supper keep watch over the refectory. While observing the process, one author noted, “The dingy colors have given way to the daring and brilliant palette of Leonardo. Exquisite details are emerging in the still life on the table and in the wall decorations surrounding the painting. The most impressive changes, however, concern the Apostles…. [The restoration] reflects the true lines of Leonardo.” [iii]

When the soil of the world clings to the soul, one’s relationship with the Master Artist is tarnished. Christians try to paint over, patch up, or anchor down what is left of their relationship with God, dealing with life in their own strength and in their own wisdom. They, too, are in desperate need of restoration.

Practicing the spiritual disciplines shapes one’s intimacy with God. These ancient practices pour God’s grace into one’s being and draws one closer to the Creator by scraping off the dirt and abuse of the everyday world. These habits strengthen a relationship with God.

Donald Whitney defines the spiritual disciplines as “those personal and corporate disciplines that promote spiritual growth. They are the habits of devotion and experiential Christianity that have been practiced by the people of God since biblical times.”[iv] Whereas each author’s list of the individual disciplines varies slightly, the most commonly spoken of disciplines are Bible study and meditation, prayer, worship, serving, stewardship, fasting, silence and solitude, and confession.

In the beginning, God created the spirit of humankind for fellowship with Him. Even though each one of us has sullied and turned from a relationship with our Creator, He is a God of restoration. He can recreate the artistic beauty of a life and refresh one’s fellowship with Himself through Jesus Christ. God tells us in Jeremiah 30:17, “I will restore you to health and I will heal you of your wounds,” tiny paint speck by tiny paint speck if need be.

Through the spiritual disciplines, the Holy Spirit is able to open the eyes of Christians to where they may have damaged their relationship with the Heavenly Father. As Christians clean away the smudge and pollution that has covered over their reflections of Jesus Christ, their relationship with God gradually becomes as He designed it to be. He alone is able to bring out the beauty He intended each person to live out in relationship with Him. He alone can reveal His purpose for each one’s life.

As Christians incorporate the rhythms of prayer and scripture meditation and worship into their daily lives, they begin to draw closer to God. They recognize His Presence as they walk along their pilgrim way. He brings to light the lines drawn by His own hand, and the soul begins to reflect the beauty and brilliance of the Master Artist.

[i] See Ephesians 2:10.

[ii] National Geographic, “The Last Supper” November 1983, pages 664-685, by Carlo Bertelli

[iii] Ibid, page 684.

[iv] Whitney, Donald. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, page 17.

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