Another spring, another silent retreat for CCU students (and myself). As we met last night for the first night of the retreat, I was reminded once again of something that I often talk about with my students – the danger of silence. Of course, silence in and of itself isn’t dangerous unless we define what makes it dangerous, and what is the object of that danger.
Whenever I participate and lead one of these retreats, I am jarringly confronted with just how noisy my life is – teaching classes, talking to students, driving home with something on the radio, getting home to reviews of the day, and sitting down to grade papers with some news show or something playing in the background. About the only time that all is silent is when I’m not awake! Therefore, in so many ways silence is the Great Disruptor not so much by what it does, as much as it is by what it reveals about my world, both internal and external. The fact that it disrupts by its very presence constitutes the danger it poses. I mean, think about it. What in your life can you identify that truly disrupts your schedule, your perspective on life, and your focus on what appears to be so profoundly important? Usually, whatever we deem dangerous is dangerous by what it does, not by it’s very presence. A warrior will describe his opponent dangerous because of the opponent’s skill, or strength, or even experience. You will often hear commentators (with March Madness still in the rear view mirror – particularly for us Tar Heels fans – ugh) describe a team as dangerous because of their hunger and drive to win no matter what, or how well they were playing at a given time in the season. Yet, in all these cases, the opponent or teams have to step onto the field of battle or the court and test their skills in whatever the match or game is. It’s not as if the team (although some teams seems to assume this at times) just appears on the court, and the other team forfeits the game.
Ah, but silence. It just appears and we go scurrying for the exits. What a force with which to contend! We may not scurry for the exits physically, but we do so mentally and emotionally. We may not be able to defeat it, but we seek to do whatever we can to fill it in order to neutralize its effects on us. Silence is a lot like a candle in a dark room. Darkness just can’t fight the light back. Once there’s light, darkness flees. Once there is silence, the darkness in us is revealed, disrupted, confronted, and silence demands an answer… “What will you do with what you find there?”
So, what danger does silence pose? The first is the danger it poses to our sense of control . Silence, if we let it, will bring into clear focus how much effort we expend in keeping our worlds quietly and completely under our control. This control, while comforting, gets to be a cruel taskmaster over time because there are always new frontiers(and people) to control and prevent from upsetting the proverbial apple cart of our lives. Silence has a way of pulling back the veil of our lives (remember the Wizard of Oz? “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!) and compels us to look steadily at it. If that was all that it did, we might be able to remain in our denial, and minimize or rationalize the compulsion to control everything around us. But, silence doesn’t stop there. It seems when allowed to remain in it purest form, silence demands a decision about what is being revealed. Interestingly, God is often found in silence, and the Holy Spirit seems to use it to focus our attention as described above. In that kind of silence, it appears the question is: Will you trust me in this silence, and with your heart, or will you continue in your delusion that you can actually control everything in order to feel safe?
The second danger silence poses is its demand to choose between listening or talking. I have had too many people comment to me when I talk about the silent retreat that they could never do that because the silence would leave them with their own thoughts and compulsions, and they simply wouldn’t be able to handle that. The reality is that they choose the path of filling the silence with words, plans, dreams, and interpersonal drama to avoid what they might find if they simply listened. Listening and talking are mutually exclusive. In the journey into silence, we choose to move from talking to, at, or with God, to listening to him. Talking runs by my agenda and timing, and listening is “run” by God’s timing and agenda. Silence poses a danger to safe and shallow understanding of God and ourselves that keeps our worlds in order and “safe.” So, what if God doesn’t talk? Perhaps, it is in the silence that we have something to learn. Trust? Safety? Control? Unrecognized or denied wounds? A celebration we haven’t let ourselves experience? We have grown so accustomed to looking for something that is there, that we forget that by its absence there is something to be learned as well. When I am searching for an answer from God, and allow the silence to reign in my heart, and God doesn’t speak (or at least in the way that I’m looking for Him to speak), I assume that He doesn’t care, or He has abandoned me. Perhaps, what I don’t see is that in that silence God only wants me to sense HIM rather than demand an answer from Him.
The last danger (and I’m sure there are many more) that silence poses to us is the danger of disruption. By our very natures, we are people of patterns, rhythms, regularity, and predictability. We like our patterns, and more importantly we don’t like those patterns interrupted or disrupted. Earlier I referred to silence as the “Great Disruptor.” So, the question is what does silence disrupt? As I have explained earlier, silence is a force that simply cannot be ignored. It disrupts the patterns in my life that I cling to in order to assure myself that my world is “in order” and all is well with my soul. But, silence disrupts all that. It, if allowed, so rudely disrupts my pattern of assuming how life works, and demands that I about it with more intentionality and clarity. Probably the most insidious patterns I have are those that I maintain in how I think about myself, how I think about God, and how I think about other people. Allow me to take the most difficult one to examine – how I think about God which, of course, influences the other two. Because silence tends to focus my attention on what I think and assume about God, it is virtually impossible if I want to participate with it, to avoid what I see there. What wars with this clarity is usually my circumstances. My circumstances tempt me into a “yeah but…” game with God and with the assumptions I find in that silence. “God has abandoned me and will resist anything I attempt to accomplish” is a “yeah, but” statement. When things go south in my life, and begin to lose sight of what I know to be true, I will resort to, “Yeah, that may be true about God’s character, but look at what happening right now! There’s nothing to conclude that God can be in this! THEREFORE, God has abandoned me… I’m sure you get the picture. But, enter silence – the great Disruptor. It quietly(of course it’s silence!) whispers, “So what are you going to choose to live your life on? The lies you believe, or the truth you know to be true but doesn’t feel that way at the moment?” Ouch… Okay…. You’ve got my attention. Geez. Up until that point in time, I’m not entertaining such questions because I have cultivated my busyness in order to not have to ask those questions.
As difficult as it may be from afar, I invite you to join me in this retreat this year. I will make every effort to “log” the movements of the retreat from our current location. Pay attention to your own heart as read my reflections from the retreat to see what God has for you even if you’re not in a place where silence can disrupt you. Perhaps, use your readings (in silence) to train your “inner spiritual ear” to the movements of the Spirit in your own heart. Welcome to the journey!