Recently, I’ve once again become terribly aware of how sick my soul is. This usually happens after a prolonged time of busyness, when the scurry and noise begin to subside outwardly, but not inwardly.
Yet, as painful as this awareness is, it reminds me of the need to continually seek the development of the key spiritual disciplines of the Desert Fathers — solitude, silence and prayer — as the daily rhythmic engagement of God’s grace toward the ongoing transformation of my inward world into the likeness of Christ. Or as Henri Nouwen succinctly states, “Becoming Christ is our salvation.”
In his reflections on silence in The Way of the Heart, Henri Nouwen offers some profound wisdom that has echoed around in my head the last couple of weeks:
“For [the Desert Fathers], the word is the instrument of the present world and silence is the mystery of the future world. If a word is to bear fruit it must be spoken from the future world into the present world. The Desert Fathers therefore considered their going into the silence of the desert to be a first step into the future world. From that world their words could bear fruit, because there they could be filled with the power of God’s silence.”
Later, Nouwen discusses how silence aids in bringing the power of God’s future New Creation (although he doesn’t use this term) into the present creation. It does so by guarding the inner fire of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Nouwen states:
“Silence is the discipline by which the inner fire of God is tended and kept alive. Diadochus of Photiki offers us a very concrete image: ‘When the door of the steambath is continually left open, the heat inside rapidly escapes through it; likewise the soul, in its desire to say many things, dissipates its remembrance of God through the door of speech, even though everything it says may be good. Thereafter, the intellect, though lacking appropriate ideas, pours out a welter of confused thoughts to anyone it meets, as it no longer has the Holy Spirit to keep its understanding free from fantasy. Ideas of value always shun verbosity, being foreign to confusion and fantasy. Timely silence, then, is precious, for it is nothing less than the mother of the wisest thoughts.’
“These words of Diadochus go against the grain of our contemporary lifestyle, in which ‘sharing’ has become one of the greatest virtues. We have been made to believe that feels, emotions, and even the inner stirrings of our soul have to be shared with others. Expressions such as ‘Thanks for sharing this with me,’ or ‘It was good to share this with you,’ show that the door of our steambath is open most of the time. In fact, people who prefer to keep to themselves and do not expose their interior life tend to create uneasiness and are often considered inhibited, asocial, or simply odd. But let us at least raise the question of whether our lavish ways of sharing are not more compulsive than virtuous; that instead of creating community they tend to flatten out our life together…
“What needs to be guarded is the life of the Spirit within us. Especially we who want to witness to the presence of God’s Spirit in the world need to tend the fire within with utmost care. It is not strange that many ministers have become burnt-out cases, people who say many words and share many experiences, but in whom the fire of God’s Spirit has died and from whom not much more comes forth than their own boring, petty ideas and feelings.”
I’ve become much more aware of how my need to share is simply therapeutic, making me feel better, often at the expense of my listener. Or sharing becomes a way of feeling good about myself because I have some “wisdom” or “knowledge” to contribute to a conversation. Or even more sinister, my sharing can become a subtle form of manipulation or control, either making others feel or believe a certain thing or spinning an image that influences how others view me. Words are powerful, and if not empowered by the Holy Spirit, they can be easily empowered by my own corrupt nature.
Now Nouwen isn’t stating that we should all remain silent and never communicate again. Silence, by itself, is not a virtue and can be easily corrupted. Rather, he is stating that our communication must flow from the inward fire of the Holy Spirit so that what we do share expresses the power of God’s future New Creation. In other words, we are the New Creation (2 Cor 5:17), so our words should tap into that reality provided by the indwelling Holy Spirit. That is only possible by practicing and becoming comfortable with a spiritual discipline that specifically engages God’s grace in this regard.
I’m sure we have all been in a social setting where conversation lapses into “awkward silence.” Why is it awkward? Why isn’t the silence comfortable, refreshing and peaceful, empowering our present words with the mysterious silence of God’s future? What is it about us inwardly that feels compelled to break the silence rather than rest in the quiet warmth of the Holy Spirit in that moment?
There are moments appropriate for speaking and moments appropriate for silence. And I know that I’m not practiced enough in silence to adequately discern one from another.