Years ago my brother David invited friends from NYC for a visit to El Paso. We were living in the city at the time. As I used to spend quite a bit of time in the desert of Southern New Mexico, David asked if I would lead his friends out into the desert for an afternoon of exploring and an evening under the stars with a campfire. I of course was more than happy to do so.
After arriving and enjoying the desert scenery for a few hours, the sun began to set. As the sun went down, I suggested to David’s friends that we sit in silence for a few minutes to take in the sounds of the desert. A few minutes turned into 5, then 10 and 15. After 20 minutes or so, I broke the silence. As people slowly began to speak, they shared that they had never experienced such silence in their lives before and that it was a deeply moving and powerful experience they would long remember.
However, silence can be incredibly destructive to those who are lonely, to those who need words of encouragement but can find none uttered, to people who need those with power to speak up to address a wrong. It is clear silence is not always a good thing. But with that caveat in mind, silence is something missing in the lives of many and at times in my own.
Often we are strategic and intentional with our words, but do we treat silence in the same way? Do we seek, schedule, or embrace silence? Do we view silence as a gift and invaluable tool?
Over the years I have become clear that silence can heal, lead to greater intimacy with others and with God, instill greater clarity and insight, calm intense situations down, bring about peace, and move us away from putting ourselves and our egos at the center of our daily living.
In scripture, I’ve been long intrigued by the story of Job and his friends. When Job is in great distress, friends show up to offer comfort and support. At first they simply sit with Job allowing loving silence to enfold them all. Things change, however, when Job’s friends interrupt the silence and begin to speak. Their presence turns from helpful to harmful. It is a poignant story which reminds us of the power of silence.
Henry Nouwen wrote a gem of a little book titled The Way of the Heart. There are a couple of points he makes about silence I’d like to share. Quoting another, Nouwen writes, “When the door of the steambath is continually left open, the heat rapidly escapes through it.” He goes on to state that our words can be like leaving the door to a steambath open. Only in the case of words, it is not heat that escapes, but the power of the Holy Spirit. In other words, silence enables us to be more fully in touch with the presence of God within us.
Upon reflection, I believe there is great wisdom in this image. In my own faith journey, I often feel most connected and intimate with God when I am silent and when I yield the space used for my own words to God. Like closing a steambath door to keep the heat in, silence ignites the “fire within” as Henry Nouwen puts it.
Nouwen also writes, “a word with power is a word that comes out of silence.” There is little doubt that when we are silent and create space for silence, the words that come after such silence are not only more potent, but wisdom filled. Nouwen writes, “a word that is not rooted in silence is a weak, powerless word that sounds like a clashing cymbal or gong.”
While we may or may not have silent outdoor spaces nearby, we can create spaces of silence wherever we are. As we live our days bombarded by words, I believe the more we incorporate silence into our day to day living, the greater clarity and wisdom we will encounter, the more intimacy we will experience with God, others and ourselves, the healthier we will be, and the more effective our words will become. I invite you to explore silence with intent and diligence. When we do so, I believe we will be surprised at the great gifts that come from the gift of silence.