The Gift and Discipline of Silence
The Institute originally published this post by guest blogger, Br. Luke Ditewig, SSJE, on July 26, 2013, on our previous website. Br. Ditewig is a member of the Institute's Board of Advisors. In this post he describes the gift and discipline of silence, a practice that ministers may consider to be restorative following incidents of tragedy.
“People were very surprised to hear I was going on a silent retreat at a monastery,” said Carol, a leader in her congregation. “They wondered if I could be quiet, but I felt strongly drawn to it.” At first, she found it hard to not say hello in the hallways, to eat without talking, and to wait in silence for several minutes for worship to begin. Yet through the weekend, Carol experienced a peace in being without talking. She paid more attention to and savored food. She gazed at trees and watched birds. Her inner chatter calmed. Silence in chapel became comforting. God’s loving touch kept surprising her. She met with one of my brothers who listened gently as she shared her burdens and grief. Silence is a powerful healing gift which undergirds our life and ministry. All kinds of people, including many clergy and professional caregivers, come to us to taste or feast on silence and return home to keep nurturing it in their everyday lives.
With life at full throttle, always squeezing in one more thing, many of us live at a frenetic pace. Constant sound, 24/7 contact and instant information at our fingertips breeds a body-numbing buzz. Many instinctively turn on an electronic device when entering a room or car or even going on a walk. Our bodies and souls long for breaks. Silence punctuates. Noise is an unending or multi-layered stream of sound, activity and emotion. Music is both notes and rests. Life without rests, without silence is noisy, suffocating and undefined. Silence is stopping to make space in between, to define what just happened, to breathe deeply.
When there’s five minutes before the next meeting or thing I have to do, I sometimes stop for a cup of tea or go outside or gaze out the window. Other times I dash to do one more thing. Then I usually realize I am—if not literally—at least figuratively out of breath. It takes me longer to “get there” and focus on the next thing. What do you do in between? How do you breathe?
We brothers cherish and offer silence not because there aren’t many good things to say and do. Rather there is so much to hear that we otherwise usually miss. Putting distractions aside, or doing just one thing at a time, one can better pay attention to the present moment. What do you hear? Perhaps birds singing, rain falling, a clock ticking, your breathing. Ordinary, beautiful things you might otherwise miss. Stand in awe of breath, of beauty, of yourself and give thanks.
Silence is a doorway to listening. It creates space to be attentive to what is happening inside. It invites listening deep within, to one’s heart with all its desires and longing, its pain and wounds, fears and hopes. As with Carol, we brothers listen to and companion many souls. Silence enables both listening and speaking. Especially on retreat, silence is part of the safe space which invites sharing when one is ready.
God often comes, chooses to be known, companions us in silence, including when we are most troubled. Remember Elijah fleeing into the desert because Jezebel was trying to kill him. God came not in a mighty wind, earthquake or fire but in the sound of sheer silence. How long did that silence last before Elijah realized God was in it? It might have been a while. Especially when blowing, quaking and burning inside, it takes time for us to settle down, to become still enough to hear beyond the blowing. A pastor on retreat recently said that after 24 hours, it felt like he could hear four times as well as when he arrived. Retreat is a special time set apart, and it’s very helpful to have a few days because often it takes one just to settle down.
Breathing deeply helps all the time. Silence can be a part of every day and not in a monastery. It can be unplugging from electronic devices for certain hours or activities. It could be listening or gazing during a commute or meal. Perhaps it is doing one thing at a time, having tea and truly savoring that cup. Maybe it’s a bedtime ritual not just for kids but for adults; a pause to reflect on the day, to give thanks, and to soothe yourself as with a lullaby before going to sleep. It may be moments without music or conversation before or amid worship or a meeting, time to be together listening. Whether in ordinary life or intensive on a retreat, silence is a powerful healing gift.
 The Rule of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, Chapter 27: Silence
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