The practice of silence and quietness

About four years ago I had the privilege of being on Iona Island just off the Isle of Mull on the West Coast of Scotland and participated in a two day spiritual retreat.  It was all part of a Celtic Christianity tour I was participating in.  One of the evenings we were attending the night prayers at the local abbey.  This was a beautifully restored cathedral originally built in the late 1100’s but restored in the mid 19th century.  The leader of the prayer gathering that particular evening stood at the podium to begin the prayer service and said: “The first 20 minutes will be in silence.”  And, with that he sat down without another word spoken and the silence began—for 20 minutes. 

Now, by that time I had had enough practise in silence that I simply began my prayer of silence along with everyone else.  Silence is not something I was ever taught or ever practiced—and certainly did not entertain using it in a public gathering.  I had however begun to experience and love the discipline of silence.

Isaiah 41:4 (NLT) “Listen in silence before me, you lands beyond the sea.  Bring your strongest arguments.  Come now and speak.  The court is ready for your case.

Lamentations 3:28-29 (NLT) Let them sit alone in silence beneath the Lord’s demands.Let them lie face down in the dust, for there may be hope at last.

Zephaniah 1:7(NLT) Stand in silence in the presence of the Sovereign Lord, for the awesome day of the Lord’s judgment is near.

Mark 4:39-40 (NLT) When Jesus woke up, he rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Silence! Be still!” Suddenly the wind stopped, and there was a great calm. 

Revelation 8:1-2 (NLT) When the Lamb broke the seventh seal on the scroll, there was silence throughout heaven for about half an hour. 

Psalms 4:3-4 (NLT) You can be sure of this: The Lord set apart the godly for himself.  The Lord will answer when I call to him. Don’t sin by letting anger control you. Think about it overnight and remain silent.

There are ample admonitions in Scripture concerning silence.
Let me give you a few reasons and benefits of silence and then a few pointers on learning how to be silent. 

Reasons and Benefits:

  1. Formation over information
  2. Emotional and inner healing
  3. Nearness of God’s Presence
  4. Quietness trains our minds to be quiet, our spirits to rise—and lead us.
  5. Quietness does not produce listening ears to the voice of God—but quietness provides fertile ground for hearing the voice of God. 

Learning how to be silent
(Adapted from Into the Silent Land. Martin Laird)

  1. The physical impact and power of deep breathing.  Sitting comfortably, in a pleasant surrounding in complete quietness and stillness—close your eyes and just breathe deeply.
  2. Assist this deep breathing with a prayer word as necessary.  Use a breath prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ thou son of God, have mercy on me’.  Or simply say a word:  Jesus,  Healing, Saviour.
  3. You may have to practice the above two, for 5 to 10 minutes.
  4. Now, when you are doing this—chances are your mind is racing and your thoughts are pounding away at your exercises.
    1. Refuse to have a dialogue with your thoughts.
    2. Battle those thoughts with scripture or simple breath prayers or repeating # 2 above.
    3. Laird: “This is the specific purpose of the prayer word:  to keep the attention from chasing thoughts and, once catching them, which it does with lightening-quick speed, whip up some commentary about the thought.” p 51
  5. Let go and live in the moment—ask for nothing.  Seek the silence.  In other words don’t be grasping at a vision, hearing God, finding a solution for a problem, seeking a feeling, wanting an experience. 
  6. A deep skill we must learn is to push away our thoughts, our fidgetiness, our wanderings NOT with a commentary but with stillness.  Laird writes “Whenever we turn within, we meet chatter, thinking, and commenting p.79.” So we look to Christ in our silence and train our minds and thoughts to be quiet!  2 Corinthians 10:5 (KJV) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ;
  7. Sometimes just naming our concern, thought, feeling instead of what Laird calls ‘spinning a commentary about the thought,’ is very helpful.
  8. Meet any and all distractions head on—not with commentary, but with ‘a steady silent gaze.” p 89
  9. Laird helps with ignoring our thoughts with this: realize that we are not our thoughts and feelings—-and once we realize this we have crossed the threshold.  “We are not the mind-stream of thoughts and feelings.”
  10. Do not berate or judge yourself.  Relax you are on a journey

SHHH!  You will enjoy it! 


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