By mere definition, to engage in a retreat is to take a specific time away from the stresses and busyness of regular life, in order to attend more deeply to God’s presence and voice. To do this, many retreats employ some element of silence. We put down our schedules. We close our emails. We turn off the noise.
Or, at least, we turn the sound off.
Silence in one discipline I have often struggled with. Every year, the clergy of the diocese are required to go on a retreat, a large portion of which is spent in silence. I would often plan for these silent times, arriving at the retreat with a suitcase of ways to fill up the time: projects to complete, music to listen to, or movies to watch. My phone was ever in my pocket, always providing the relief of emails, texts, and social media. It’s still ok to answer emails if your phone is on mute, right? Through these tactics, my observance of the discipline of silence became very easy. I could sit in my room, watching Die Hard, confident that all unwanted noise was being mediated through my headphones. Who wouldn’t love a silent retreat like that?
Recently, I read a book called ‘Invitation to Silence and Solitude’, written by Ruth Haley Barton. In this book, Barton writes that through silence we “take seriously the need to quiet the noise of our lives… in order to give God our undivided attention.” These words spoke powerfully to me. My times of silence were not spent in undivided attention to the Lord. And Die Hard isn’t the most theologically dense film.
As I reflected on that, I noticed how I had grown accustomed to the sounds that encompassed my life: the blaring of the stereo, the flashes of the TV screen, the chirps and whistles of the apps on my phone. It was as if I depended on those noises to take up the acoustic space within me. What is more, my engagement with projects, social media, or various forms of entertainment re-created the very dynamics I was to be stepping away from. In my desire to fill the silence (or worse yet, make the silent times ‘productive,’) I was actually removing myself from the very retreat I was to be on; I observed external quietness, yet knew nothing of an internal discipline of silence. It’s hard to give God our undivided attention when we’re watching Bruce Willis jump off a building.
Being quiet simply refers to a reduction in external noise. It is more of a description of an external atmosphere rather than an internal disposition. The fact is, one is able enjoy quietness, mediated through headphones or the cessation from talking, and still be filled with the noises of modern life. Even within a quiet atmosphere, the direction of our souls may remain fixed upon the frantic activities of life around us.
The discipline of silence is different than quietness because silence describes an inner quality of the soul. In silence we open ourselves to the presence of God, laying down the noise produced by our own striving and inward compulsions. Silence involves closing ourselves to that which whirls around us, and (possibly more importantly) within us. By quieting our environment, we labour to still our inner chatter. Like Elijah before the still small voice, in silence we willingly allow the presence of God to confront us. Quietness means I can put on my headphones and continue to watch action movies. Silence means I must necessarily lay down those distractions, and turn my inner self to the one who waits to commune with me.
This is the power of silence. Beyond all else, the discipline of silence is grounded upon the availability of God’s presence. Silence creates the necessary space for us to interact with God’s presence, unhindered by the clutter of familiar distractions. “The point of solitude,” writes Barton, “is to be with God with what is true about me right now—whatever that is. Silence, then, allows me to simply give God access to the reality of myself.” As we push through the feelings of discomfort, we find ourselves entering that silence that is defined, not by the absence of noise, but by the mighty presence of God.