While some might find the idea of silence appealing, the truth is, most of us don’t do well with perfect quiet. Have you ever sat alone in a room, only to hear sounds you had never noticed before? The ticking of a clock. The whooshing of air moving through ducts. The hum of a refrigerator. A lawn mower running in the distance. It is all a bit unnerving.
But perhaps the thing we fear most about silence is being alone with our own thoughts. When confronted with true quiet, we begin to hear the mad and chaotic rush of thoughts filling our minds. The anxieties, the deep longings, the painful questions all seem to come bubbling to the surface of our consciousness—and it makes us uncomfortable.
We fear this confrontation with our innermost selves, the struggle with the complexity of our hearts. So our natural tendency is to drown out silence with constant noise. In the car alone, we turn on the radio. At home, TVs run constantly, not so that we can watch them, but for a comforting “background noise.” A spare moment in line is filled with compulsive checking of our smartphones. Anything but silence.
Silence and the Saints
Yet, despite the disquieting nature of silence, countless saints have counseled it as a necessary and indispensable practice for growing in true holiness.
“In silence and quiet the devout soul advances in virtue and learns the hidden truths of Scripture,” says Thomas a Kempis. “Guard against much talking,” advises St. Dorotheus of Gaza, “for it puts to flight devout thoughts and recollection in God.” St. Maximilian Kolbe declares that, “Silence is necessary, and even absolutely necessary. If silence is lacking, then grace is lacking.” Many more examples could be given.
Through the centuries, many religious orders have put this advice into practice, with not a few prescribing silence to various degrees in their rules. Perhaps the most famous and strict of these orders is the Carthusians. Their disciplined quiet is so well known that a documentary film about them was entitled, “Into Great Silence.”
Without question, all the great saints, mystics, and spiritual masters prescribe silence as a sure means to holiness. But why? What’s so special about silence?
It is important to understand that silence, like all the tools of the spiritual life, is not an end in itself. It is a means—a method for coming to know Jesus Christ. Silence is necessary because our intellects are wounded and fractured by the Fall. Communion with God our Creator once came naturally and easily, much like seeing or hearing does now. We were constantly aware of His presence. But now, sin has disrupted this communion and damaged our ability to know God at the deepest level of our being.
Our fractured intellect, once perfectly in control, is now a chaotic storm of thoughts, feelings and emotions—like a restless cloud of gnats on a hot summer night. Calming this spiritual and emotional storm is incredibly difficult, and the only way to achieve it is to face it head on. This we can only do when we are quiet enough to hear just how chaotic our souls really are. Indeed, this can be frightening, and we’d rather not do it—but doing so is absolutely essential for spiritual progress.
Moreover, silence is necessary to hear the promptings of the Holy Spirit and to receive and preserve grace. God does not shout. He speaks quietly and softly, in a “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-12). The promptings of the Holy Spirit are never heard in busyness and anxious activity, but rather in stillness and quietness of heart.
Silence too helps us to preserve the graces that God sends to us. Scuba divers are careful and slow with their movements so as not to waste unnecessarily their precious reserves of oxygen. Likewise, holy souls speak speaking carefully and prudently to preserve their reservoir of grace.
How to Practice Silence
Now, you may be wondering how it would be possible for a layman with a job and perhaps a family to practice the virtue of silence. I know my wife would not appreciate it if I began gesturing to her with monastic hand signals rather than speaking! But while the practice of silence for a lay person might look different than for a monastic, it is still possible and even advisable. Here are some practical suggestions.
The first way to practice silence is to refrain from frivolous speech, realizing that “when words are many, transgression is not lacking” (Proverbs 10:19). That is, don’t speak for speaking’s sake. Social media especially encourages wasted speech. I’ve logged into Facebook to see people complaining about hangnails, discussing their digestive problems, or posting cryptic statements that beg for attention (“I really wonder if it’s worth it anymore,” and the like). If you’re tempted to engage in this kind of speech, don’t. Speak only when you have something worthwhile to say.
Second, silence can be practiced by restraining our tongues when we desire to complain. Complaining is the opposite of gratitude and thanksgiving, and it is actually a sin. It is so easy to complain about a meal, a rude person, or the weather. But does this contribute to anyone’s well being? Hold your tongue unless you have something praiseworthy to say.
Third, we can practice silence by refraining from sharing our opinion on every topic imaginable. Whenever a crisis emerges on the national or world stage, it seems that everyone everywhere immediately declares their infallible opinion on the matter. But the truth is, many of us don’t understand these events very well at all, and the world is not in need of more opinions. Keep your opinion to yourself and you will be considered the wiser for it.
Fourth, we can resist the urge to fill every spare moment with noise. If you are driving, try leaving the radio or music off. If you are home, leave the TV off. Avoid mindlessly checking your phone while in line or in spare moments. Life is full of moments where we can be silent. Embrace them.
Finally, we can keep silence when we desire to criticize others. How easy it is to notice the faults of others! And it is even easier to repeat these faults, true or not, to others, tearing people and harming their reputations if only to make ourselves feel better. To keep silence when we feel the urge to criticize is difficult, but it is also life-giving.
“The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity,” says St. James. Words have power, though it be unseen, and what we say will echo in eternity. While we are not cloistered monks, we can learn to practice silence in the state to which God has called us, restraining our tongues wisely so we can hear the voice of Christ and come to know him better.