I wrote a few days ago about rest and how difficult we find it in today’s busy world. Since then I have been learning a little bit more about rest as I have had to take a few days off with ill health. Rest is not something comes easily to us, and it can be struggle to actually stop and take time out when we need to.
But if we find rest difficult, what about silence? We live in a world of almost constant noise. Judging by many of my visits, there are many people who seem to need to always have something on in the background. One of my first questions I often ask when visiting is, “Do you mind if you turn the TV off”? Maybe in this information age we are simply tuned in to receiving a constant flow of sound and images. And for some people an absence of sound is something to be feared, a sign of being disconnected by those around them.
That’s why it’s been interesting seeing part of the BBC series about a group of busy people who went on a silent retreat for eight days in a Christian Community. It focused on the fears and anxiety they felt as they approached the retreat and the spiritual journey they made as they learned to live with the silence.
And that kind of programme makes us ask what part silence plays in our lives. There are of course Christian traditions which particularly value silence as means of encountering God. Certainly silence helps us quieten our minds and attune ourselves to the still, small voice of God. But I would add that silence on its own is never enough to lead to a genuine encounter with God. Because there are many voices that come to us in the silence, and we need to know which are of God and which are not. Or we may feel no particular sense of God in the silence, and may be worried that somehow He has abandoned us. That’s why I believe it is so significant that the Scriptures start back in Genesis 1 with God speaking. We have a God who uses words, and who has left reliable information about Himself in the words of the Bible. We need to inform our silence with the these words, so that we can discern the work of the Holy Spirit and respond appropriately. And there is no greater model for this than Jesus’ own experience in the wilderness, where He used the words of Deuteronomy to resist temptation and focus on God’s will for His life.
So silence, yes, is important and it helps us let go of our distractions and our worries, and refocus on Jesus. But a mystical view of silence as an end in itself, divorced from the word of God, can I believe too often set people on the wrong path. I think, for example, of all the sects that have come from an individual claiming to have this or that encounter with God and the consequent production of a new holy book that claims to supplant the Bible. I think of the Quaker movement that has to a large extent moved away from its Christian roots as it has focused simply on listening, and replaced truth with personal experience. Silence creates the space, Scripture gives us the means, that we might hear God speak. The two go together.