URC :: Spirituality

broadening and deepening prayer
United Reformed Church Spirituality articles:

What’s the role of silence?

Mark Argent
9 August 2018

For some, silence has connotations of austerity. I used to have someone in my District as an Elder who, since the death of her husband, had lived with great loneliness. She was reluctant to make a silent retreat because, spending a painfully large amount of time alone, she was keen to be with people whenever she was able to go away. A few times I gently floated the idea that the aim of a silent retreat as something that helps someone to draw closer to God could have helped in her loneliness, but the time didn’t seem right for that.

The reality is that silence is just a tool to help a person deepen their contemplative experience and their experience of God. At the start of a retreat I usually say to people that it serves two functions. One is that it is usually easier to tune into God, or to encounter God in the subtle shifts of the inner life, if you are not also trying to tune into other people. The other reason, which may be more obvious to those giving retreats than those making them, is that each person on an individually-guided retreat follows their own path: it is highly unlikely that two people meeting over coffee would be in the same space inside, so a conversation would be likely to get in the way for both of them. Though I don’t like to be too rigid about this as I’ve also had experiences where a chance conversation on retreat has been a helpful turning point.

When people are struggling with the silence there is often something quite profound going on, perhaps around a fear of the deep encounter with God or a fear of what they might face in themselves. That can sometimes feel and sound like shallowness of faith: in fact it is usually the exact opposite, expressing an awareness of the richness of the territory people are entering.

There’s a common perception that introverts take better to silence than extraverts. To an extent that is true, particularly for people having their first experiences of silence. But part of any person’s journey towards an integrated wholeness involves drawing appropriately on their inner resources. Silence can be particularly valuable for the extravert, for whom it is all the more valuable for being less often naturally a part of their daily life.

While silence can be a powerful tool, something interesting happens when it is disturbed. On the one hand, it is possible to pray with quite real infractions of silence: I met this frequently working at Osterley Retreats, which was directly under a Heathrow flight path, and have been humbled by the contemplative experiences of people who hear voices, for whom the speech which could disturb their prayer can’t be avoided because it is in their own heads. Yet if a person is struggling to pray, tiny infractions of the silence can seem like major obstacles and become the focus of frustration: the trick is often to have the generosity on oneself and others to seek to find God in or around those infractions.

That is something which leads directly into the contemplative’s experience outside times of retreat. At its best a retreat is not a time when there are certain hours of prayer, separated by “time off”, but a time of continual openness, both in and between times of formal prayer. Outside a time of retreat it’s not normally possible to set aside large slabs of time for silence. A more helpful model is to think of tuning in to the presence of a God who is always there — whether acknowledged or not — using times of silence or stillness to adjust one’s tuning and awareness.

Prayerfully thinking back over the past day, perhaps asking the question “Where was God in the experience?”, is a way of deepening this awareness because it helps us to be more in tune with the stillness of deep presence, and of the subtle movements in our spirits which give glimpses of what is going on at the deeper levels in our hearts, both when we are aware of them at the time, and when, in hindsight, we can see that we were choosing not to be aware. For me, the nurturing of those awarenesses is the real purpose of silence in prayer. I find it often more helpful to think in terms of “listening” rather than “silence”.

While silence is very helpful, it’s not the whole story because many of these subtle changes happen in response to the things of daily life. The trick is to use silence as a way of listening. I find myself trying not to limit the contemplative experience to times of silence, instead seeking the generosity to myself and others that enables me to meet God in deep silence in a world that is far from silent.