We’ve been concentrating on the spiritual disciplines lately in one of my classes, and for one assignment we were encouraged to incorporate one of the disciplines into our life for at least a week and see what came about from the practice.
The specific practice of the spiritual disciplines has been foreign to me for much of my life. Within Baptist circles it seems as if the spiritual disciplines now consist only of the stereotypical “read your Bible and pray” routine, as so many of our jokes and (at times) sermons seem to communicate. The other disciplines seem too mystical or Eastern for our Western faith, so we opt to just ignore them. (Note: I am only presenting my somewhat hyperbolic-perspective on the presentation of the disciplines from my upbringing, not characterizing all Baptists as such. end note.) As we discussed the disciplines more, I found myself intrigued at there being more expressions and practices of my faith than reading, praying, and going to church every week.
For my assignment I took up the combined disciplines of silence and solitude. The aim with these disciplines is to rid oneself of the external havoc that surrounds life every day, to escape the discord of noise and music and voices colliding upon the eardrum and the mind, and to draw one’s focus solely upon seeking after peace with God. I must say that upon the first presentation, the only thing I could picture in my mind was a toga-wrapped cross-legged Buddhist monk humming “ohmm” while sitting on a bed of nails. Christians don’t do that kind of thing, right?
The first difficulty in my pursuit of this discipline was finding a place for silent solitude. I live on a college campus, after all. Busyness is the air we breathe. Noise is the rhythm our hearts beat to. Community life is how we eat and shower and sleep. We cover the awkwardness of silence with music or YouTube. We rid ourselves of solitude by walking across the hall or down the street to the coffee place. We don’t do silence and solitude very well.
I found the closest thing I could to silence and solitude in the upper recesses of the empty chapel, in a dark corner where I felt no one could see me and thus would leave me to my solitude. My professor emphasized the importance of going into these periods of silence and solitude without a to-do list, so I just did what came to mind. Prayer. Silence. Journaling. Resting. Reading. Silent, peaceful solitude is refreshing in the noise and havoc of college life.
Through these times of silence, I have come to realize how much of our lives we try to cover with noise. I found it interesting how harsh the simplest sounds seem when you are surrounded by silence. While sitting there, a few people walked into the chapel and said a few words to each other, a sound that otherwise would have been inaudible, yet in the silence was piercing. It is almost as if the sounds that we surround ourselves with somehow deaden or round the edges of our existence. Silence seems to define things clearly – our existence becomes clear, respiration and pulse and movement are understood more clearly, and our surroundings become separate from our existence. I wonder if we do not cover over our brokenness or our sin with noise or music, because surrounded by noise our reality is extended outside of ourselves, the edges of the reality of our life are rounded off and we are somehow less guilty, or the reality of our brokenness is somehow lessened. We mask our discordant nature with exterior harmony in hopes that somehow we will be made whole.
For another of my classes we have been reading through a book called “Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale” by Frederick Buechner. In it, Buechner builds on Christ’s silent answer to Pilate’s question “what is truth?” The truth, Buechner contends, is in the silence. All of us walk around with the truth inside us and all around us, but wordless and unexplained, like the evening news, “but with the sound turned off.” The Gospel is in the silent truth of life, “life with the sound turned off so that for a moment or two you can experience it not in terms of the words you make it bearable by but for the unutterable mystery that it is.” The Gospel brings words to that truth, but only after those moments of silent reality of the unspoken truth. There is truth in silence, truth that somehow we miss in the noise of our lives and the daily busyness of doing stuff – for that is all it is – stuff. In breaking away from the noise and the activity, we somehow find the truth, not in words, but in silence.
The one who hears the truth that is silence before it is a word is Pilate, and he hears it because he has asked to hear it, and he has asked to hear it – “What is truth?” he asks – because in a world of many truths and half truths, he is hungry for truth itself, or, failing that, at least for the truth that there is no truth. We are all of us Pilate in our asking after truth, and when we come to church to ask it, the preacher would do well to answer us also with silence because the truth and the Gospel are one, and before the Gospel is a word, it too like truth is silence – not an ordinary silence, silence as nothing to hear, but silence that makes itself heard if you listen to it the way Pilate listens to the silence of the man with the split lip. The Gospel that is truth is good news, but before it is good news, let us say that it is just news. Let us say that it is the evening news, the television news, but with the sound turned off.