Silence and God
For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. Psalm 62:5
Silence and us, silence and noise, silence and technology and now we finish with silence and God.
One writer on Christian spirituality, Richard Foster says; silence sometimes involves the absence of speech; it always involves the act of listening. (Foster: 123). If you focus on the word ‘silent’ for a moment, if you rearrange the letters in the word ‘silent’, it contains the same letters as the word ‘listen’. That’s the point of experiencing silence as a spiritual practice or discipline. That’s how silence is connected to God. We can refrain from talking for any number of reasons, but when we are silent, we can enter the space in which we can listen to God and God speaks to us. When the clamouring voices or thoughts in our minds are stilled, we listen to the word of God, whose presence can nurture and restore our souls.
Benedict, the 6th century mystic and father of western monasticism, came up with seventy-three rules for living in community, rules that Benedictines still practise today. The very first words of the Rule of St Benedict are, listen by inclining the ear of your heart. There is great wisdom here, moving beyond our tongues and ears, to deeper down to our hearts. When our hearts are open to listening to God, Christ can grow in us.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in “Life Together”; silence is nothing else but waiting for God’s Word and coming from God’s Word with a blessing. But everybody knows that this is something that needs to be practised and learned, in these days when talkativeness prevails. Real silence, real stillness, really holding one’s tongue comes only as the sober consequence of spiritual stillness. (Life Together: 60). Being still before God, practising silence, is a gift to use when we come to hear the Bible, but how often do we do this? How often are our times of reading the Bible or hearing the Bible being read to us accompanied by times of silence? Stillness, silence, is an appropriate way to come to God’s Word. For by inclining the ear of our heart to the word of the Lord, we will hear God speak to us.
Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.
Silence and Technology
Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in their way, over the person who carries out evil devices! Psalm 37:7
Last time we looked at silence and noise and how addicted we can be towards not just the external noise we hear but also the noisiness that occurs inside us. Technology has an uncanny way of feeding that internal noise in not so helpful ways. Erling Kagge in “Silence; in the age of noise” says this about silence, noise and technology;
Noise in the form of anticipating a screen or keyboard is addictive, and that is why we need silence. The more we are inundated, the more we wish to be distracted…You get into a dopamine loop… Dopamine does what you desire, seek and crave. We don’t know if we have received an email, message or other form of communication so we check and recheck our phones like a one-armed bandit in the attempt to achieve satisfaction. Dopamine is not programmed to release a feeling of fulfilment even if you’ve achieved what you sought and craved; so you are never satisfied. This means I continue to google, twenty minutes after I’ve found what I was initially searching for. This is a banal predicament to find myself in. Still, I often find it easier to continue than to actually stop. I check websites that I just visited, even though I already know their content. And I relinquish a measure of control over my life in the process.
Biology has a natural explanation for my lack of common sense; we are not born to be satisfied. A different chemical in the brain, opioid, is supposed to create that feeling of happiness once you’ve achieved your goals. Unfortunately, dopamine is stronger than opioid, so even if you’ve attained all you ever dreamed of you will continue to do the same thing. Hence the dopamine loop. It is more fulfilling to anticipate and seek, to wander in circles, than simply to value and appreciate the fact that you have fulfilled your desires.
This is a form of noise that engenders anxiety and negative feelings. Most apps have one thing in common; no one uses them. Even successful apps like Twitter have eventually faced resistance. The founders are devastated that their own business idea is showing cracks and growth has slowed down. This is actually a good thing. The problem with achieving success with an app is that the service not only creates addiction – it fosters isolation as well. The basic business model of Twitter and other such social media networks is to create a need for you to use the app, which the same app should then fill, but only temporarily. The owners live off your addiction. ‘Gradually, these bonds cement into a habit as users turn to your product when experiencing certain internal triggers,’ Nir Eyal wrote in his book “Hooked; How to build Habit-Forming Products.” I share therefore I am.
Some users get a good response when you post something on social media, while most sit waiting for anyone to care. And the more unpredictable this interaction is, the more the user is addicted. You don’t want to miss out on anything. You don’t gain happiness from such prolonged routines – rather, according to Eyal, you experience feelings of boredom, frustration, passivity and isolation…
The New York Review of Books has labelled the battle between producers of apps ‘the new opium wars’, and the paper claims ‘marketers have adopted addiction as an explicit commercial strategy’. The only difference is that pushers aren’t peddling a product that can be smoked in a pipe, but rather is ingested via sugar-coated apps.
In a way, silence is the opposite of all of this. It’s about getting inside what you are doing. Experiencing rather than over-thinking. Allowing each moment to be big enough. Not living through other people and other things. (Kagge: 46-51)
Have you experienced the dopamine loop of technology? Looking for one thing on Google which leads to twenty things, checking your emails too many times during the working day, pressing on that social media app more times than you know you need to or want to? How much time we and our students spend on technology is increasingly an important issue. Silence, being still, waiting patiently are all ways in which we can counterbalance the overuse of technology.
Two discussion questions for people in pairs:
Let’s pray; Spirit of love and connectivity, originator of emerging technologies, and ever evolving intelligences, you give me both a gift and challenge with technology. Help me choose wisely amid the endless tweets and plethora of knowledge that daily saturate my consciousness. Immerse me in the power of your grace, that in you I have all I need. May you always be the well of wisdom from which I can draw meaning to make sense of the madness of my life. That’s enough for me. Amen.
(adapted from Sister Cathy Campbell https://spsmw.org/prayer/technology-wisdom-prayer/)
Silence and Noise
The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still. Exodus 14:14
This verse comes to us through Moses at a watershed moment. The Hebrew people have escaped Egypt. They now stand between the Red Sea and the anxious noise of Pharaoh’s army that is ominously breathing down their necks. Moses says to them; the Lord will fight for you, you need only to be still. Let’s practise that now and have a period of silence for two minutes that begins and ends with this chime….
It’s amazing that when we still our minds and encounter silence, how much more attentive we are to noise. When we think about it, there are two types of noise we hear. The noise which we make ourselves because we can’t stand the silence and the external noise which surrounds us everywhere in the world. First let’s explore the latter, the external noise of headphones and earbuds, Bluetooth mobile phone pieces to the noise pollution of heavy machinery, aeroplanes, and traffic. A Harvard postgraduate student, Tim Gallati who has researched silence in terms of monastic spirituality and technology says this about noise;
We tend to background a lot of the sound and high volume activity that occurs around us. We might mistake that for coping or getting used to it. But you never really get used to it. Your body still has to process it. You don’t just hear with your ears. You hear with your whole body. We know this from walking by, say, a church organ and you feel that deep resonance in your bones, or a pounding jackhammer on a construction site. We really feel it. We’re almost like flesh and bone tuning forks.
The 2015 film “In Pursuit of Silence” explores the relationship between silence and noise and takes seriously evidence from the World Health Organisation that environmental noise has real negative health effects like cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment, sleep disturbance, tinnitus, and annoyance. Let’s watch this part of the promo for the film; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=64c_1MtQUlM (from 2min mark)
The other type of noise that we hear is the noise we make ourselves because we can’t stand silence. Listen to what Erling Kagge says about this in his book “Silence; in the age of noise”;
In a joint study from the universities of Virginia and Harvard, scientists left individuals alone in a room for six to fifteen minutes without music, reading material, the chance to write or their smartphones. They were left solely to their own thoughts. The participants ranged from 18-77 years old and were drawn from a variety of backgrounds, yet the results were the same regardless. Most felt discomfort.
A third of the participants who took the test at home admitted that they weren’t even able to complete the assignment without breaking its rules, cutting short the minutes of sitting quietly.
One group was permitted to read or listen to music but was denied contact with other people. These participants reported higher satisfaction. Many of them also thought it was helpful to look out a window.
The scientists then took the study one step further…Each participant had been subjected in advance to a similar electric shock so they would know exactly how painful the option was. And it was painful. Nevertheless, nearly half of the subjects eventually pushed on the button to administer an electrical shock in order to reduce their silent time.
What was so striking, according to the researchers, was that being alone with one’s thoughts for 15 minutes ‘was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid’. One of the participants pushed the electric shock button 190 times. (Kagge: )
There are lots of layers of noise, distractions, anxieties for God to get through for us to hear him speak to us. Apart from the noise pollution of our urbanised world, there is also the noise that we create for ourselves because we struggle to be quiet. But as you reflect on this topic of silence and noise; the good news God says to you today just as he said to the anxious Hebrews fleeing the Egyptians; The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.
Silence and Us
There is a time to be silent and a time to speak. Ecclesiastes 3:7
For many people, silence can be an unnerving thing. Something we crave but something we can equally be fearful of. From the senseless chatter of social gatherings to students who can’t help but talk in classes, many humans hide their nervousness and awkwardness by making noise. We’d rather talk about the weather, tell a joke, say anything than be comfortable sitting and being in silence.
Listen to this passage from a book by a Norwegian explorer and publisher called “Silence; in an age of noise”. The author Erling Kagge writes of the struggle in our culture of being comfortable with silence;
Contrary to what I believed when I was younger, the basic state of our brain is one of chaos. The reason that it took me so long to understand this is that my days often pass on autopilot. I sleep, wake up, check my phone, shower, eat and head off to work. Here I respond to messages, attend meetings, read and converse. My own and others’ expectations of how my day is supposed to unfold guide my hours until the hour when I lie down again to sleep.
Whenever I fall out of this rut and sit quietly in a room alone, without any goal, without anything to look at, the chaos surfaces. It is difficult only to sit there. Multiple temptations surface. My brain, which functions so well on autopilot, is no longer helpful. It’s not easy being idle when nothing else is going on, it is quiet, and you are alone. I often choose to do anything else rather than to fill the silence with myself. I have gradually come to realise that the source of many of my problems lies precisely in this struggle…
The philosopher and boredom theorist Blaise Pascal promoted this type of exploration as early as the 1600s; ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’ So a discomfort with being alone, holding one’s tongue and simply being did not start with the advent of TV in the 1950s, with the coming of the internet in the 90s or with smartphones; it has always been a problem, and Pascal was probably the first to write about this feeling. The constant impulse to turn to something else – TV series, gadgets, games – grows out of a need with which we are born, rather than being a cause. This disquiet that we feel has been with us since the beginning; it is our natural state.
The present hurts wrote Pascal. And our response is to look ceaselessly for fresh purposes that draw our attention outwards, away from ourselves. Of course, such opportunities for interruption have increased dramatically over the last century, a trend that seems set to continue. We live in the age of noise; silence is almost extinct. (Kagge: 36-37)
Why are we afraid of silence, and for some of us unable at times to be silent?
Silence, solitude, being alone by ourselves is where the deep stuff happens. Silence is where we are forced to be comfortable in our own skin. It is the space we enter in which we learn about ourselves. Silence is the space where God can be heard and where God hears us.
Jesus took time away from the crowds, the pressing needs of humanity, to be alone, to spend time in silence, to hear God and hear God speak to him. One of the many passages in Mark’s Gospel of Jesus being comfortable with silence is in chapter one verse thirty-five; In the morning, long before daylight, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.
All through Mark’s gospel, Jesus made space for solitude and silence. So let’s spend some time as Jesus did in prayer, being comfortable in silence before we begin the busyness of our day…
About this site
"Meditations & Musings" is my humble attempt to share what I have found useful in ministry in an Australian Lutheran School setting. It contains chapels, devotions and other resources I have written, used and adapted in my K-12 school context. If you would like to also share your ideas, resources or start a conversation about mission and ministry in your church- school location, feel free to contact me.
Links I Like: