“And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long,
but only by a spiritual journey,
a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful,
by which we arrive at the ground at our feet,
and learn to be at home.”
~ Wendell Berry ~
In the last several years, I made a simple change to my spiritual life that has had a radical impact. I stepped off the edge of words into the great abyss of silence. I made this change soon after my literary agent started shopping around a book proposal I hoped would be a major hit. It was titled, Roar: Ten Things I’ve Learned about Being a Strong, Confident Woman. There was serious truth to this idea. I had learned something about being a strong, confident woman that I wanted to share with the world.
Turns out, the world was not interested in my particular slant on roaring, or at least the publishers weren’t. Their main issue had to do with my platform. It was too small, not to mention several of the Christian publishing houses don’t really know what to do with strong women—much like Christendom in general for the last fifteen hundred years. How do we market this book? They wondered. If she doesn’t have a readership, we certainly can’t help her find one. My agent had some thoughts on this, all of which included selling my soul to my preferred social media platform. Do not worry about spiritual integrity, or one’s need for a real spiritual life. Just work on your platform.
After several rejections, I hit an impasse in my tried-and-true methods of prayer. It felt to me that my words to God hit the ceiling, were going nowhere, and that God was no longer on my side, perhaps not on any side at all. God seemed hard to gauge and impossible to track down. Nothing helped. Eventually, as goes the way of God’s gentle grace, I stumbled across a theologian named Sarah Coakley. Years ago, she wrote two articles on silent prayer for Christian Century. I devoured them at least ten times and ultimately decided to do what she did: sit in silence every day, with a timer and see what might happen.
It felt like I was stepping into subversive territory. Truth be told, silent prayer seemed fringe to me, more like transcendental meditation than a Christian practice. But I set off, desperate for spiritual help. For three months, I sat for twenty to thirty minutes in silence every day. And to my great shock, I loved it. It was like a homecoming of sorts. Slowly, something inside me started to calm and settle.
Summer turned to autumn and for reasons most of us can relate to, I set the practice aside. I took a job at a Presbyterian church and got busy with the tyranny of the urgent, with the need to prepare messages, pray with words, and do the activities that were before me.
A couple years into my ministry role at the Presbyterian church, I fell into some relational conflict I did not know how to resolve. It took months before I could admit that I had control issues and I played a role in the conflict. At the time, the only thing I knew was that God wanted me to pick up my silent practice again. I surrendered and made my way once more into silence, into stillness—trusting that the one who invited would make all things clear.
The practice itself is basic. I sit on the floor in my office, with my back against my couch. I cross my legs or keep them straight out. I close my eyes, and settle. I use a breath prayer that helps me return to the present moment when I get distracted, which can feel like every nano second. I do this every morning. This practice, day in and day out, seems basic, maybe even trite. But over those first several months, the anger that was always just below the surface began to ebb out, the constant rush of thoughts and feelings that had overwhelmed me my entire life began to simmer, and I started learning how to actually rest, to breathe in a different way altogether. Life took on a more spacious feel, my intuition heightened, and I began to recognize the difference between action and reaction, between thoughts and reality. Now, after years of silence, I’m finally seeing that true courage and authenticity spring from inner quiet instead of overwhelming emotion.
It will also come as no surprise that the very thing that brought me into silence dissolved like sugar when placed in water. The initial desire to quiet my internal noise long enough to hear God’s voice was a primary motivation, but as time passed, this changed altogether. The entire transactional nature of my faith shifted. I began to understand in a much more intrinsic way that I do not come to prayer to get something from God. I come into prayer to be with God, to rest in God, and in this place of rest is a fullness of life I can’t even begin to describe.
By stepping into silent prayer more intentionally, I unknowingly entered an ancient Christian tradition that many before me have walked. I discovered a world of rich landscape. Yes, we come to know God by doing things, but we can also come to know God, and ourselves, by not doing, by learning to be—by quieting the buzz and voices that play in our minds and learning to sit, sometimes painfully, in the quiet, with the One who is Silent, the One who is the Ground of All Being.¹
In Christian spirituality, we have the cataphatic and the apophatic. The cataphatic is the way we come to know God by affirming what we know. This is connected to the practices of doing—reading Scripture, praying with words, serving alongside the poor, receiving the Sacraments, worshiping in community, etc. …and they are infinitely important. But so is the apophatic: the tradition that teaches we come to know God by what we do not know, by negation: through mystery and silence, into the great Unknown.²
The writer of Ecclesiastes promises that there is a time for everything, for every purpose, every matter under heaven. There is a time to be born and a time to die; there is a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing; there is a time to weep and a time to laugh. And the author assures us, there is a time to speak and a time for silence. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8) The key to spiritual maturity is to know when it is time for each of these things. This is the work of wisdom. We do not learn this kind of wisdom without practicing restraint, without stillness. The ancient Orthodox tradition calls it Holy Hesychia, Holy Stillness. The Psalmist says, “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10) For many years, I did a lot of running around trying to prove that God was God, and instead only confused my own strength and will with God’s work, with God’s will.
Five hundred years ago came the Protestant Reformation, along with the printing press that eventually put God’s Word and other words into the hands of everyone. A few decades ago came the internet and cast even more words into this world, and with that came the great equalizer of platform building. Anyone can step into the public square of social media and preach their words. I love this. Except, we don’t need all the words we use. We might have the freedom to speak, to preach, even to roar, to say whatever we want to, but what we really need right now is the wisdom to know when to speak and when to be quiet. That is freedom of an entirely different sort altogether. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”³ Do we know of that which we cannot speak? We would be wise to discover it anew.
¹ Paul Tillich first used this as a description for God’s very essence.
² The Western Church has long been suspicious of the great Unknown.
³ This is the final line in Wittgenstein’s book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
Cover photo credit: Ümit Bulut