Some years ago, when I was teaching at Mercy College, I did an experiment with my students: I asked them to sit silently while I timed them. The room went quiet – and the longer they sat the more uncomfortable they became; they began to fidget in their seats, I heard some nervous giggles; the time seemed to drag on forever for them. When I ended the experiment there was a collective sigh of relief – as if they had done yeoman’s work. They had been sitting quietly for just one minute!
Our society has become addicted to noise. We talk so much – to and at each other – that we leave very little time to listen. When we’re not talking we’re texting; the conversation never stops. Get in the car and the first thing most of us do is turn on the radio – God forbid we should be without noise for even a few moments. People turn on their televisions and radios at home simply for the noise – it’s ersatz company when there is on one else around. Out for fresh air? Don’t do it without your earbuds – it may not be all that good for our psyche, but Apple sure does well selling iPods and iPads to keep the noise pumping into our brains.
Is there a price to all this? Why are we so uncomfortable with silence? What do we miss by constantly surrounding ourselves with people and with noise? The French Philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascale wrote: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” He’s on to something.
Solitude and quiet are important for Christian living. Jesus often went off to be alone: he was along when he went out to the Jordan to be baptized by John, and then, alone, the Spirit led him to the desert to fast and pray for 40 days. After feeding the 5000 the Lord sent his disciples home while he went to the mountain for prayer. On the night before he died he went to the garden with friends, but then went off by himself to pray. Jesus was more than comfortable with solitude, he needed it.
Our brains are constantly carrying on a running conversation, but it is unfocused and undisciplined. Solitude allows us to listen to and reflect upon our own inner voice – to our thoughts and feelings. Socrates famously declared “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Encountering silence is the beginning of living “the examined life.”
Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would live with us and in us: the Spirit of Truth who would teach us all things. How can we hear the promptings of the Paraclete if we don’t take the time and expend the energy to listen.
In 1 Kings 19 the prophet Elijah tis sent by God to the Holy Mountain, Horeb, because the Lord himself was passing by.
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Had he not been properly disposed to hear the gentle whisper of God it would have been easy for the Prophet to miss the Lord. Our time in solitude readies us to hear the voice of God whispering to humankind. In the silence of our hearts the Spirit transforms us: inspiring, encouraging, teaching, and leading us, tenderly, into His future.
If you are like my students, bringing silence into your daily routine is not going to be easy – but to live the discipled life we must live as Jesus lived, and he cherished his moments of solitude, quiet and prayer.
Here are a few things to try:
- Set some time for solitude away every day – make it a regular time so that this can become a habit. Start slowly – for maybe 15 or 20 minutes. You might want to do quiet time both in the morning and in the evening. Make this your sacred time, time for quiet and resting in the Lord.
- Then, as hard as it may seem at first, stick to your plan. Think of it as time spent with your friend Jesus.
- Find a place that’s quiet and peaceful, with as few distractions as possible. If you live by the ocean you might want to look for a secluded place by the sea conducive to your meditation. Some people create a prayer room in their homes, others stop by a church on the way to or from work.
- Start your time with prayer – ask God to fill your quiet time with his gentle and deep love. Pray for inspiration, and help, and guidance. When you pray it is not really you praying, Paul reminds us, the Spirit prays in us.
- Read a short passage of scripture – a verse or even a part of a verse – to get you started. Let that be the focus of your quiet time. Repeat it over and over in your mind. Let it become the focus of your consciousness until the Lord shows you something else He wants to show you.
- Don’t worry about time, like my students did. You can time your meditation time with Insight Timer, a great smartphone app. It will alert you at intervals so that you know how your quiet time is progressing. Or set an egg timer and forget about time until it goes off.
- As you deepen in the practice, learn from the masters. There are some wonderful books on meditation for those just beginning the practice. James Finley’s Christian Meditation would be a good place to start.
“Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” Psalm 46:10