“The mystics all agree that silence is the royal road to spiritual formation. I have never met anyone seriously interested in the spiritual life who did not have a growing desire for silence.”
The above quote is from Henri Nouwen. Supposedly. Hopefully. I haven’t been able to confirm that, but I saw it on Twitter, so I’m sure it’s true.
Anyway, whether it is from Nouwen or not, I believe that it is both true and consequential. Life is not only busy. Life is noisy. I haven’t seen the movie A Quiet Place yet, but it is interesting to me that what has captured the imaginations of most of the people who have watched it isn’t the notion of a species of space aliens intent on wiping out humanity. We’ve been wiped out by aliens enough times that getting wiped out one more time would barely get our attention. No, what amazes people about this movie is the idea of living in complete silence. Such an idea is more alien than, well, aliens.
My life is so full of a constant beeping and buzzing, alerts and push notifications, music, podcasts, commercials and conversations, and screens. Screens everywhere always blocking my sight and bombarding me with sound and image. We have chosen to live in a constant state of tinnitus. It’s a wonder any of us can think at all. Or pray.
A growing spiritual life will not only increasingly seek after silence, it will also find silence to be absolutely necessary. Even Jesus modeled this simple truth. Noise is toxic to growth which might partly explain our addiction to it.
There is no moment during my week where I more long for silence than Wednesday nights. For several years now I have been volunteering with our student ministry. More specifically, I work with a group of rowdy and flatulent seventh grade boys. Wednesday nights are full of noise and chaos (and smells). The worship is loud. The conversations are loud and unrelenting. The games are loud. Seventh grade boys (and girls for that matter) are absolutely allergic to silence especially after a long day at school. There are so many times where in frustration I find myself just longing for even a moment of silence to think and to pray. I would like to claim that these moments are the result of being “seriously interested in the spiritual life.” But I suspect that a lot of those moments are largely because I can be kind of a grump and one of the differences between a seventh grade boy and a full grown man is that a man just wants to silently sit after a long day of work. A seventh grade boy, on the other hand, just wants to fart so that he can make his friends laugh.
Last night was Wednesday night, and I was having one of my moments during our Communion time. If ever there was a time for silent reflection in worship, this should be it. I found myself frustrated with the constant buzz of noises coming from the students, so I bowed my head to pray. And in my prayer a funny thing happened. I stopped hearing noise and I started to hear voices. Nothing overly mystical was happening. I just had a moment of clarity. As I sat there with my head bowed I heard the voices of boys and girls who had come to our church from all sorts of family backgrounds and for all sorts of different reasons. Some were there because parents had made it clear they had to be there. Some were there because they just wanted to flirt with girls or talk about Fortnite with their friends. Some, many I hope, were there because they really wanted a chance to worship. The point is, they were there. I was reminded that not all noise in our modern world is created equal. That noise that I was hearing last night was actually the sound of my ministry.
What I guess I’m coming to realize is that Nouwen is only mostly right. Moments of silence are indispensable to spiritual formation. I don’t know of a single person who doesn’t need to grow in the habit of solitude and silence. But some sanctified noise is also indispensable because the noise beckons us to remember our calling. Matthew’s gospel says that Jesus saw (and I’m sure heard) the crowds of people and had compassion on them. I’ve come to imagine Jesus hearing the individual voices of those who had gathered to listen to him. They were voices from different backgrounds, with different purposes, with different needs. But in the noise of the crowds, Jesus identified a purpose for every one of his disciples. The fields are ready for harvest. Are you ready to get to work?