Seeking Silence in a Noisy World

Rachel Forton

Seeking Silence in a Noisy World

As I sit down to write about silence, I do so in a noisy house. I can hear my children upstairs with their grandmother, chattering away as they eat their morning snack. Silence is fleeting in this house, and when it appears, I often find myself pushing it away in discomfort. Rather than easing into the presence of silence, I fill it by scrolling on my phone, turning on the TV, or going through my to-do list in my head.

I do not believe this experience is unique to me. When confronted with an opportunity for stillness, many become uncomfortable and turn to outward and inward distractions to avoid whatever – or Whoever – might be waiting there. But if we desire a relationship with God and a rich interior life, we must make space for listening. We need silence to find the intimacy of a relationship with God that is comfortable just being, like an elderly couple who are content to sit together without speaking. The saints had this kind of relationship with God. St. Therese of Lisieux said, “Frequently, only silence can express my prayer.” Mother Teresa echoed her sentiment: “I always begin my prayer in silence, for it is in the silence of the heart that God speaks. God is the friend of silence...” Listening to ourselves and to God happens best in silence.

A House of Holy Silence

We very rarely happen upon silence in today’s world. We must seek it out and set aside time for it. Many people do this by going on retreat. Before having my second child, I spent six years working for a silent Jesuit retreat house. Although the office was usually a hub of activity, there were many days when retreatants filled the house and I had the chance to join their silence for a moment. I’d leave the noisy office and the list of tasks on my desk and walk down a long hallway past a chapel full of people praying in silence. It is there that I learned that silence is not an absence of noise, but a presence. The silence of 70 people in prayer was indeed full.

Often, I would answer the phone at the retreat house and hear the nervousness of a first-time retreatant asking me if they would really be expected to be quiet the entire weekend. “What do I do in between the retreat talks? What do you mean, we can’t speak at meals? Isn’t that awkward?” Although rarely voiced, I speculate the underlying question and true concern of the first-time retreatant is this: What if I enter the silence and find nothing there? 

Last summer I had the privilege of sitting with retreatants for spiritual direction each day during their 8-day silent retreat. What I found is that, after a couple days of releasing the tension and noise of everyday life that had followed them into retreat, some people began to be afraid of what they would find in the silence. What memories might surface? What feelings have they been ignoring? What might God be trying to say that they don’t necessarily want to hear? Silence and stillness bring us face-to-face with the parts of our lives and ourselves that we regularly avoid. We are confronted with the truth of who we are. If we are lucky, we also encounter the truth of who God is. Silence helps us reconnect with our deepest selves and the God who dwells there.

Cultivating Silence

Perhaps you don’t have the time or ability to travel to a silent retreat house. Surely there are still minutes or hours in your day to bring yourself into silence. Turn off exterior and interior noise, light a candle, and become present to yourself. Then, you may become aware of the presence of Someone waiting to be heard and longing to be known. The truths and wisdoms that God shares in moments of silence become the food that nourishes our creative selves. The deep knowings that emerge in this space then have the chance to be expressed through prayer, in word, song, movement, or art. 

The natural world has much to teach us about who God is, and it is one of the best places to embrace silence. Have you noticed that the quieter you are, the more creation comes alive? Once I walked through a tall grassy meadow as part of my silent retreat. I became aware of a presence behind me and was shocked to discover a deer following me. Mesmerized, I stood completely still as it passed within inches of me. I hadn’t realized how quietly and slowly I’d been walking. That beautiful image of God must have sensed the peace within my being in that quiet, slow walk and felt safe enough to come close. 

While that experience happened in the summer, even in winter it is worthwhile to immerse ourselves in the natural world. Whether you find a local forest preserve or simply step out into your backyard or stroll through your neighborhood, the silence of nature speaks of God’s closeness. Although much in the winter is dormant and bare, if you stand still long enough to really look, you’ll find creative life everywhere. Even the trees seem to whisper their wisdom if we but stop to listen. 

The mystic monk Thomas Merton, whose life was filled with contemplative silence in nature, wrote, “My silence is part of the whole world's silence and builds the temple of God without the noise of hammers."

In silence, we discover that the breath of God sustaining and encouraging and enlightening us is the same breath sustaining all the life around us. Our one Creator unites us to all people and all living things. The healing silence of nature is a gift to be treasured. Making time for such contemplation in nature is a beautiful antidote to the busyness of modern life.

How can you make time for silence today? What will you set aside in order to create space for listening deeply to your heart and to God within you?