The Quiet is Calling
As I reflect on my time as an undergraduate student at Toccoa Falls College, I am flooded with memories that bring joy and fulfillment to my soul. I find myself smiling as I think about the baseball guys, classes in the Ministry Leadership Center, and late nights in the dorms. It was truly a beautiful, life giving experience that I will forever be grateful for.
However, as I give more thought to my day-to-day college experience, I am forced to consider some realities that were less than refreshing for my soul. I remember the busyness. I was tired. I often felt distant from God. My spiritual journey was marked with aridity. By the time graduation rolled around I was jaded and I was paying little attention to how I was being inwardly formed.
Since then, I have had highs and lows in my apprenticeship to Jesus, but mostly I have been coasting. After a season of remarkable busyness this past year, I was exhausted in more ways than one. I found that my soul was hurried and that something needed to change. Through a series of events, the Spirit, almost by force, guided me toward taking some time off of work. During this time that served as a mini sabbatical for me, I felt a longing to be in the quiet with God, as if bringing everything to a sudden halt stirred something up in my soul. As I did some reading on different spiritual disciplines, the quiet kept calling me. Through my reading, I understood more clearly that I was being called to participate in what many of the devotional greats would call silence and solitude. As I brought this practice from the life of Christ into my life through reading, podcasts, and actual attempts, I learned how essential silence and solitude is for us as followers of Jesus.
As disciples, or apprentices, of Jesus we often overlook what our role is in that relationship. An apprentice is seeking to become like their teacher or master. In this case, as apprentices, we are seeking to become like our master, Jesus. As John Mark Comer puts it, “If we want the life of Jesus, we must adopt his lifestyle”. While this point may seem elementary, the reality is we don’t live like we get the point. We externalize our faith and miss out on the life that comes with truly abiding in the Vine (Jn 15). In looking at the life of Jesus, it is hard not to notice how often he would withdraw to a solitary place. Being alone in the quiet with the Father was the lifeblood to all that he did. People were desperate for his teaching, his miracles, and his presence, yet he would constantly remove himself from the crowds, away from his disciples, and into communion with the Father. Not to go Sunday school on you, but if Jesus did it, we ought to as well.
Practicing silence and solitude doesn’t come natural to us. It is countercultural to slow our lives down and remove ourselves from the noise. Distraction for many of us is the answer to life’s problems. We scroll and stream in hopes of disconnecting from the anxieties of this world. When we are overwhelmed or stressed we fill ourselves with junk expecting it to be restful. The reality is we are just exhausting ourselves further. We have become experts in avoiding rest. We tell ourselves, “If only I had more time!” Do you know what we would do with more time? Waste it. People more experienced in following the way of Jesus tell us to rest, to get away, to be in the quiet. Our answer is, “I don’t have time.” How can we do those things and finish everything else on our plate? The real question that we must ask is how do we do everything on our plate without incorporating the quiet?
I know you’re tired. And if you’re not now, you will be soon. You might feel stuck. Jaded. Distant. Here’s my challenge to you. Just try this practice from the life of Jesus. Incorporate a time of silence into your daily routine. (As a note, an important aspect of pursuing silence and solitude is found in establishing rhythms of rest and practicing Sabbath. They go hand in hand. As noted in the fact that when I stopped everything and rested, I developed the capacity to practice these disciplines. Having said that, we can save diving deeper into Shabbat for another article!) If you struggle to find silence naturally because of circumstances in your life, pursue the lonely place (Lk 5:16). To be clear, the practice of silence is not meant to be purely sitting in the quiet. However, that is a good place to start, especially in the digital distracting culture we live in. The purpose is first to make a conscious effort to literally stop. From there, in an effort to not rush into the presence of God uttering all that comes to mind (Ecc 5:1-3), avoid jumping into standard discursive prayer. Practice a simple prayer, with little to no words, invoking the name of Jesus in your heart and mind (Merton, 2014). As we sit in the silence, we learn to hear and obey God, and as time goes on, our soul is satisfied with simply adoring him. It will not naturally come to us, but as we keep showing up, the quiet will begin to call us. We will be drawn to the silence. As Isaac of Nineveh wrote, “After a while a certain sweetness is born in the heart of this exercise and the body is drawn almost by force to remain in silence.”
As the practice of exterior silence becomes ingrained into our lifestyle, our inner self will become more and more silent. Life will slow down, our thoughts will be easier to collect, and our soul will be refreshed. In the midst of the noise, we will be able to find interior silence, the place where the mystery of God and his love is made clear to us. Through this silence, a life centered on practicing the presence of God, or as Paul would put it, praying without ceasing (1 Thess 5:17) becomes less of a far-fetched effort, and more like our daily reality.
As a warning, it is certainly possible that the awareness you gain through this practice brings about further experiences of spiritual dryness. If so, rejoice! This is a purifying effort by God. Many master apprentices of Jesus have reflected on this experience, most notably St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. It is summed up as a purposeful removal by God of the sweetness and pleasure that is found in him, so that we may address the deep rooted sins in our life and be led towards a more transforming union with God (May, 2005). We will be faced with “our own nothingness, a recognition of helplessness, frustration, infidelity, confusion, ignorance” and in a very real way, recognize our total dependence on Him (Merton, 2014).
My advice to you: keep showing up. Yes, there will be sweetness in the presence of God that you will cherish forever. However, the majority of our time in the quiet with God will lack feelings, and that is good! As Thomas Merton suggests, “A hard and apparently fruitless meditation may in fact be much more valuable than one that is easy, happy, enlightened and apparently a big success”. We will learn not to rely on these feelings, and when we keep showing up, we will see those ‘fruitless’ experiences as times of growth and profound realization. We will grow in our view of prayer in that we are not seeking merely to utter petitions, or even attain a wider knowledge of God, but in a yearning for his presence, we come to fully embrace our identity through realizing his merciful knowledge and love for us. He becomes the lover and we assume our role as the beloved. And then we simply seek to adore him.
So, what do you say? The ironic, beautiful thing about this practice is it takes a community. Seek help. Ask questions. Share experiences. Read from others that have made the pilgrimage into silence and solitude. I think you will find this practice from the life of Jesus to be an essential, foundational piece to your life. You may not know it yet, but the quiet is calling you. The terrible, wonderful, uncomfortable, awe-inducing and grace inspired quiet might be the answer to what you are longing for.
Father, extend your grace to us so that we may not only desire your presence, but learn how to be in it.
May, G. G. (2005). The dark night of the soul: A psychiatrist explores the connection between darkness and spiritual growth. HarperCollins.
Merton, T. (2014). Contemplative Prayer. Image.