I recently returned home from a silent retreat. It was short, but I came back refreshed. I’d rarely been silent for an entire day while in the company of other people before, and I learned a lot. It was lovely to listen to talks and then pray, walk, and meditate in total silence, without distraction. I don’t think I knew how much I needed silence until I was on the retreat. So much of our lives are about non-attentiveness and distraction. The world tells us, “Be as attentive as you want, see how far that gets you?” But we need to make room in our lives for loving attentiveness. One of the retreat leaders said, “Listening, after all, is the posture of discipleship.”
If you ever have the opportunity to go on a silent retreat, I recommend it. Colleen Moore, spoke at the start of the retreat about the role of silence in the Christian tradition. She stressed that for Christians silence is not an end in itself. Rather, silence is a discipline of listening and attentiveness; a habit of heart and mind, that, when cultivated, can last a lifetime. Silence is about returning to the silence of God to hear the answer to the question, “Who am I?” It’s not about human agency, but rather, about vulnerability and the willingness to be lead. We don’t create our existence and identity, rather we receive them.
The silence of a silent retreat is intentional. It’s not just what happens when people stop talking. It is not about absence, but about presence, that is, learning how to be in the presence of God.
Here are some short quotes on the purpose of silence and listening in the Christian tradition. If you want more, set a timer and try 20 minutes of silent prayer or meditation on your own.
“For God alone my soul waits in silence.” – Psalm 62
“Listen!” – first word of The Rule of St. Benedict
“I said to my soul be still.” – T.S. Elliot
“The Christian vocation is getting used to life with God.” – St. Irenaeus
“Silence is the mother of speech.” – Thomas Merton
“It is not the desert island or the stormy wilderness that cuts you off from the people you love. It is the wilderness in the mind, the desert wastes in the heart through which one wanders lost and a stranger. When one is a stranger to oneself then one is estranged from others too. If one is out of touch with oneself, then one cannot touch others. How often in a large city, shaking hands with friends, I have felt the wilderness stretching between us. Both of us were wandering in arid wastes, having lost the springs that nourished us — or having found them dry. Only when one is connected to one’s own core is one connected to others, I am beginning to discover. And, for me, the core, the inner spring, can best be refound through solitude.” – Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift From the Sea
“If a group suddenly goes quiet, know that God is passing by.” – African Proverb
“The more faithfully you listen to the voice within you, the better you hear what is sounding outside of you.” – Dag Hammarskjold, Markings
“There will be no rationing of the Spirit by the Father.” – Nicodemus
“Your very life is a sacrament you’ve been given, and maybe the most important sacrament you’ve been given, because God is going to communicate God’s self through your life…There’s no substitute for attentiveness. You can’t nurture what you don’t notice.” – Fr. Paul Kolmann, CSC
“When words are many, transgressions are not lacking, but the wise hold their tongues.” – Proverbs 10:19
“Our greatest need is to be silent before this great God with our appetite and with our tongue, for the language he best hears is the silent language of love.” – St. John of the Cross