When I started practicing silence and solitude, I lasted ten minutes, eventually twenty, then a half an hour. Finally someone led me into an all-day silence and solitude retreat. I’d never experienced an all-day time of silence and solitude, so it was kind of daunting.
The morning felt similar to what I had done in the past on my own. But when it came time for lunch, we were told we were going to eat our lunch in silence. As we ate in silence in the retreat house dining room, I just fell to pieces. I started to weep and thought, What is this? What is happening here? I’m a pretty in-control kind of person. I won’t usually let that kind of emotion overwhelm me.
And because we were in silence, because none of us were allowed to talk to each other, nobody could come and try to fix me. So all I could do was be by myself with God. He was my companion for lunch. And as I stayed with my experience, I began to be aware of the weight of Christian expectations on me—of being a good Christian, a good neighbor, a good mother, a good wife, a good person in ministry, a good leader.
I realized that my Christian life had become such a heavy weight. The tears were purely tears of relief that I wasn’t going to have to go into this lunch and talk to somebody, that I wasn’t going to have to figure out some sort of a social interaction, that nothing was expected of me. I didn’t have to fix it. I didn’t have to serve it. I didn’t have to socialize over it. I didn’t have to do anything but allow someone to serve me lunch in the presence of God.
Then I realized this was ridiculous. My Christian life had gotten to the place where it was so weighty that when I got to this moment in which I was allowed to be quiet and to be served, I became an emotional wreck. I was now aware of the level of exhaustion I never knew existed within me—a direct result of the way I’d been living my Christian life. It wasn’t anybody’s fault but my own.My life wasn’t working at this level. That realization was profound.
The Rhythm of Silence and Word
Silence is the time when we withdraw from our addiction to noise, words, and activity. And so in silence we withdraw from our own inner compulsions, not just the expectations of other people, but from our addiction to our own thoughts and words. And so we develop this rhythm of silence and word.
Bonheoffer says right words come out of right silence, and right silence comes out of right words—an interplay between silence and word. Scriptures also tell us that in a multitude of words, there is much transgression. What’s the solution to that? To shut our mouths every so often, so that we can hear a word from the Lord. One of the reasons we don’t hear a word from the Lord and yet long for one is that we never stop the flow of our own words. How in the world are we going to hear something from God if we’re always talking?