It is golden. It is a virtue. It is more musical than any melody, rest for the mind, and sometimes it has the loudest voice. It is often the best possible answer, a friend that never betrays, and it is the subject of a classic Simon and Garfunkel song. And, frankly, I’m not very good at it: Silence. I make a living using words – putting them on paper and screen and ejecting them into the air – so being quiet is, by default, not my specialty (though a few enthusiastic readers beg me to shut up almost every week). My mind suffers from Attention Deficient Disorder, it moves quickly between tasks, and the words constantly spewing from my mouth or keyboard and the busyness of my schedule confirm this diagnosis.
Truly, I wish it was different for me. I have always envied those who are quiet and meditative by nature, those who can eagerly hide in the stillness, and those who can retreat for days at a time into the calmness of contemplation. How I wish I was more like Thomas Merton, the Desert Fathers of old, or the preacher E.M. Bounds who spent four hours a day – every day – in silent prayer. That is my wish, but that is not my reality or my nature.
I’m busy. I’m torn. I’m shooting at multiple targets all the time with little chance of developing into a Henry David Thoreau. I also have three young sons, writing deadlines every week, and a speaking and blogging schedule that sometimes make me wince.
The closest I get to contemplation is sipping my coffee in the early morning. And if I get lucky – really lucky – I might get a moment of spiritual retreat with a walk in the woods, the only sound being the crunching snow beneath my feet and thumping of my pulse filling my ears.
But, we ADD-types need some quiet here and there. We need to subdue our minds and soothe the chorus of voices inside our heads. But how? How can we, who are nothing like, say, Mother Teresa, find the soothing sound of spiritual silence? I can only return to a story involving Jesus and two sisters.
The two sisters were Mary and Martha who hosted Jesus in their home. Mary was a venerable St. Benedict, placid and peaceful, sitting at Jesus’ feet in silence. Meanwhile, Martha was in the kitchen shaking and baking, jumping and jiving, busting her can while the more brooding types breathed the ether of serenity.
Martha’s own ADD mind, being in overdrive as it always was, earned from Jesus an understanding, gentle rebuke. He effectively said (and I am paraphrasing here), “Martha, relax. It’s okay to be busy, dear one, but don’t overdo it. Yes, do the few, important things well; but let the rest of it go.”
This is a prescription written by Jesus’ own hand, for all us Martha-types who need a little less talk and a lot more contemplation: “Chill out. Take a walk. Linger over your coffee a few more minutes each morning”. We are not so damn important that the earth will swing off its hinges if we don’t complete everything on our to-do list.
Yes, we who are the hard-driving, multi-tasking, goal-orienting, noise-making, word-emitting Martha’s of the world would do well to learn the discipline of nothingness. By creating times of vacancy and empty space on our calendars and in our lives, we might not be transformed into spiritual mystics, but we might discover that God is easier to hear, for in the quiet places God will certainly speak.
In the stillness the universe might whisper in our ears. In the calm of morning coffee the divine could be revealed. A simple walk in the woods may well unlock your heart. Sitting softly in the dark for a time of prayer could possibly reorient your life.
None of these things are exceptionally spiritual on their own, but they build a discipline of listening silence, and the sound of silence can be a beautiful sound indeed.