For twenty seconds now, try doing absolutely nothing. Don’t move. Don’t speak. Don’t fiddle with your phone or with your keys. Absolutely nothing. Experience complete silence.
Difficult, isn’t it? If that’s the first time you have experienced silence in a while, then this piece is for you.
I first shared these words as a school chapel talk, where our reading was from 1 Kings 19. That chapter illustrates the power of silence amid chaos. The story begins with Elijah standing alone on a bleak mountainside, awaiting God.
Think about the terror this implies. Nowadays we are more used to regarding Christianity as offering some kind of comfort. C.S. Lewis, in his book Mere Christianity reminds us otherwise:
“[God] is our only possible ally, and we have made ourselves His enemies. Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again… Goodness is either the great safety or the great danger.”
Meeting God, when you really think about it, is a terrifying prospect. If Elijah was expecting God to be terrifying, then what came next matched the description. Waiting for God, nature around him suddenly burst into chaos. He cowered to witness a hurricane, an earthquake and a firestorm. Rocks broke before his eyes, the very earth shook, and flames raged onwards.
And then nothing. After the fire came “a sound of sheer silence.” Elijah realised that powerful though God was, he could only be heard in the silence.
I think we can treat Elijah’s story as an allegory: one that applies to our lives today.
Sometimes we allow rage to drive us. Like the wind and the quake and the fire, we let our anger out and expect that whirlwind to change things. I’m sure you can think of such a situation in your own home or school life.
Those who believe in God find themselves railing against the injustice of the world too: why doesn’t God stop all the suffering? The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said that he feels the same. Indeed, that rage is a regular part of his prayers. He explained, “You see psalms where the psalmist cries out against God with an anger that we would never dream of in our churches. And it’s right, it’s the right way to talk to God in those moments.”
But then, just like Elijah found, after all the raging comes the silence where God is found. Justin Welby says, “When that happens, God is there…. In the moments when I’ve wanted to get away from God, like a child running away from a parent I find myself embraced in arms of love that are more powerful than I am.”
In modern life we certainly have the rage. But do we have enough of the silence that follows it? What can we learn from Christianity?
Christianity has a long history of seeking God in the silence. The historian Diarmaid MacCulloch’s book Silence: A Christian History tells us of those who quietly looked inward before advancing into the world around them. Some early Christians perhaps went too far. For example, the hermits who retreated deep into the Saharan desert. Or the Syrian stylites, who actually lived their whole lives sitting alone on top of a tall pillar.
Some ancient non-Christians took silence to extremes too. The Athenian philosopher Diogenes the Cynic spent much of his time living a life of contemplation inside a barrel. His reputation impressed Alexander the Great, who was at that time king and leader of the world’s biggest empire. Alexander came to visit Diogenes, and asked, “Is there anything I can do for you?” Imagine that. A military conqueror so great that we still remember him nearly two and a half thousand years later. Visiting one poor and humble philosopher. And do you know how Diogenes replied to this dream offer? “Yes,” he said. “There is one thing. You can get out of my sunlight.”
Even if some take the notion of silence too far, that just goes to emphasise its spiritual power. Silence is where spiritual growth happens. In the fourth century a Christian theologian Evagrius was caught sleeping with the wife of a senior official in Constantinople. He fled the city. This Evagrius certainly had a lot of turmoil to think about. He later wrote that silence helped him explore those troubling inner thoughts: first it gave him serenity, and then knowledge. In that silence, he was redirected back on to the right path. He is now remembered in history by the name ‘Evagrius the Solitary’.
I recently spent a year living in a theological college, where priests are trained to join the Church of England. For a few days in Advent, we ‘retreated’ – not away from each other, but into silence. It was silence together. We ate together, prayed together, and enjoyed each other’s company while sharing the life of contemplation. Silence need not be lonely. We all came out of the Advent retreat closer, humbler and more thoughtful about our beliefs and actions.
I think all of us can enjoy the benefits of silence. It challenges you like the stereotypical psychiatrist in his chair, patiently just listening while we reveal not just our thoughts but our thoughts about our thoughts. C.S. Lewis again, in his satirical Screwtape Letters warns of all those times we mistake our own motives: when what we told ourselves were good deeds, actually turn out on closer inspection to be self-serving. Only where we have the space and time to carefully study our thoughts can we possibly realise this. While the hectic world is spinning with all its rage and busyness, there is no time to look inwards at ourselves. But we need it if we are going to do the right thing.
Silence can be disturbing. Last year I taught in a school where an unusually high proportion of the students came from deprived backgrounds. Usually we teachers ask for periods of silence in the classroom, because it helps you think clearly without distraction. But in that school, I was advised not to risk silence, because the students were not used to it. Being left alone with their troubled thoughts for the first time might panic them.
It sounds unbelievable that those students had really never dwelt in silence. Bur we know that in modern life it is increasingly difficult to obtain it. There is always something to occupy our minds. Even when we think we have silence, say when we are alone in our rooms, or even out in the fresh air, still we feel the urge to check our phones and our social media – a kind of inner noise caused by our impatience.
You do not have to be a Christian, or even a believer in God to benefit from silence. Taking the time to judge our own inner motivations, and to think carefully helps us choose the right path whether God is there or not. Mindfulness, a kind of meditation, is increasingly popular in business and schools, and enthusiasts report benefits that continue long after the silence ends.
By the way, silence does not stop us seeking positive change in the world, or for ourselves. Elijah is spurred into action after his silent encounter with God. He takes God’s message back out into the world. But before he did that, he needed silence. Only once the raging terrors had stopped was he able to hear God speaking to him, to find out what was right.
So whatever you believe, silence is the place where we find answers, see our real selves and prepare for what needs to be done. And maybe it is the place where we meet God.