Sunday, February 26, 2012, 7:27 PM
About ten years ago I attended a weeklong retreat sponsored by the Shalem Insititute in Washington, DC. This retreat was one component of a program in group spiritual direction that I was participating in.
The centerpiece of the retreat was a 24 hour period of silence. Participants would remain in the retreat center or on the grounds during the whole time, but would not speak with one another during the designated period of silence.
As the period of silence began, I wandered into the chapel of the retreat center. I picked up a copy of the bulletin that another group had used for worship and read this paraphrase of the first few verses of Psalm 19.
"As the sunrise and the sunset praise you in colors royal, day after day, and the night gives praise in glittering splendor, star by star. And the seas praise you, tumbling and spraying their white spume, fluent in calm and storm. And the land praises you, bursting into bloom with a rainbow of flowers and all manner of fruit. Yet they speak no words; THEIR BEING IS THEIR PRAISE." [Capitals are mine. I have tried but cannot locate the author or source of this text. It was printed in the bulletin without attribution.]
At that moment, I remember feeling that these words were speaking directly to me, inviting me to consider what it meant for anyone or anything to praise God simply by being who we are and what we are. No words or speech were necessary. This was a perfect introduction to the time of silence.
Later that afternoon, I tried to take a nap. As I tried to fall asleep, I became increasingly aware of the noise outside the building. Some new houses were being built on land adjoining the retreat center. The construction equipment was loud, as were the workers who had to yell over the noise of the machinery.
At first I was irritated by the noise that seemed to interrupt the silence. Then I was amused at the irony. Finally, I realized that "silence" meant something different than "quiet."
I realized that the gift of silence was not about quiet from the noise of the world. Rather, the time of silence gave me a break from the responsibility of speaking with others and listening to them.
Not forever. I would resume speaking and listening to others when the time came. But the time of silence would provide an opening for me to focus on things that I had been neglecting because of the sometimes overwhelming responsibility to communicate with others.
My great discovery during that time of silence was that, at that time in my life, I had stopped talking with God. The previous six months had been stressful and painful for me both because of work and life. During that time of busyness, I had simply stopped talking with God. So I spent the remainder of that afternoon and evening, and the following morning, talking to God. It was a rather one sided conversation, since, after six months, I had a lot to say.
I learned from that experience that it was important to keep open the lines of communication between God and me. And, yes, I believe I do as much listening as speaking these days when I talk with God. But that period of intentional silence gave me the opportunity to discover what was missing from my life in that time. And subsequent periods of intentional silence have helped me to keep perspective.
Lent is a season when we encourage one another to focus intentionally on strengthening our individual and communal relationships with God by setting aside time for prayer, reflection, and meditation. We are called to stop doing some things that interfere with our relationship with God and to start doing other things that can strengthen it.
For who serve and lead in the church, Lent can also be a season of incredibly frantic busyness-the opposite of what we hope for others and ourselves. Some of this busyness cannot be avoided. What is most important is that we not let ourselves be consumed by it.
I encourage you to do what you need to do in this season of Lent to deepen your own relationship with God. And I encourage you to try intentional silence as one way to do this. You may need the support of a spiritual director who will walk with you on this journey. You may need to find a place apart from ordinary life in order for this to be meaningful. And it may not work for you.
But it may be just the thing.
May God bless you and all those who are touched by your ministry during this season of Lent.