I visited a monastery in Kentucky for a quiet weekend earlier this year. The chapel and guest rooms perch on a wide, green hillside overlooking a small, peaceful lake. My room was simply furnished, with a chair by the window overlooking the trees. The sisters there live in prayerful silence as they eat and work and walk gracefully around the campus. Their silence is interrupted only by singing and prayer at regular intervals throughout the day. This visit was a respite for me.
In my real life, I live in the city with my two lively, elementary-age children. They also move through life with grace—grace made gritty by frequent childhood conflicts, questions, and requests. When I first entered motherhood, I was surprised by how distressing it was to hear my newborn baby’s cry. I don’t know if I was distressed by the cry itself or by the weight of responsibility it represented, but his cry broke the silence of my old life.
Even with the best efforts, I don’t think one can ever fully prepare for life’s sudden seasons of change: the first day of school, a new city or apartment, a wedding, a funeral, walking into a new job. A certain clamor always accompanies change.
These days, I crave more silence than ever. But stillness takes practice as the force of life pulls us along. It’s uncomfortable at first. When I’m quiet, things float up to the surface from the shadow places in my heart that I haven’t wanted to deal with. But after a time, I can tune my ears to hear the still, small whisper of God. In silence, prayer comes up as wordless petitions and attentive expectation. In this, we affirm that prayer is a two-way conversation. Silence is the waiting posture that helps us to be poised to hear God’s voice.
Silence is not just for librarians or clergy. It is essential to human flourishing. Thomas Merton said that “music is pleasing not only because of the sound but because of the silence that is in it: Without the alteration of sound and silence, there would be no rhythm.” But we are squeezed by a culture of noise and a scarcity of silence.
Productivity keeps us ever on the move. Our ambition chases career, money, or relationships, hoping that one day we’ll arrive at a resting place. Words fill our heads and our Twitter feeds with information but not wisdom or knowledge. Our phones buzz and nudge us toward communication at all hours, creating a steady but addictive sort of energy.
We want community but settle for text conversation. We desire belonging but settle for transactions. We want to be seen for who we are but settle for social media. But silence is a spacious protest, like rehabilitation. Slow and steady, we can regain life’s full range of motion; coordination, restraint, and joy.
Many translations and paraphrases of Psalm 65:1 reference praise with an emphasis on silence. Duke Bible scholar Ellen Davis once translated it as, “To you, O Lord, silence is praise.” It is a reminder that our polished prayers and best efforts are not the measure of how much we are loved.
In Psalm 65:1 the psalmist offers an invitation to simply be present. If it is silence that God first desires, then could it be true that we are loved before we ever give an explanation for ourselves or before we ask a single question? We are loved simply because we are, because we belong to him.
Anything less than this true identity as children of God feels like a freefall. I have some strong magnets holding the kids’ artwork on my fridge. If I drop one them to the ground, as it falls it will seek any attraction to slow it down. Any nearby magnet or metal object will pull it off course. Staying the course is the work of faith.
Silence helps us stay faithful, to stay on course, to see what’s what. It helps us stay in step with the God who loves us and has called us according to his purposes (Rom. 8:26–28). In the persistent noise of life, as in my early days of motherhood, our heavenly Father offers a hush and a whisper. With great gentleness, he rushes in to meet the needs of his children before we even know how to ask. He who is eager and able invites us to rest in the subtlety of silence and the safety of his secure embrace.
Sandra McCracken is a singer-songwriter who lives in Nashville. Follow her on Twitter @Sandramccracken.
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