“Silence your lips that your heart may speak…
Silence your heart that God may speak…”
– The Spiritual Elder
How I miss the silence.
It was pleasant sunny winter’s day in ancient Wadi Natroun, the ancient desert abode of the Christian monks of Egypt. I was a newly ordained priest halfway through my 40 day retreat before returning to my family and my home to begin parish service. I spied out the little doorway in the wall of the monastery and found it unlocked. Through some barns and fields ebbing with the sounds and smells of cows and goats, down a little path and I was out in the desert.
Before me, only a creamy yellowness. Yellowness of sand, yellowness of rocks, yellowness of distant dots that are the cells of hermits … yellowness broken only by the horizon … above which a deep, deep sky blue unmarked by a single cloud.
I turned my back to the walls of the monastery and began to walk. After a few minutes, the animal smells and sounds were behind me, except for the occasional plaintive heehaw of a recalcitrant donkey in the distance. An hour later, I felt I was the only thing alive in my world and the monastery was no more than a low flat line near the horizon. Another hour and a half of walking, and I felt utterly, utterly alone.
I closed my eyes and focused all my attention on the sensation of hearing. For the first time in my life, I heard the sound of … nothing.
It is an experience I have never been able to repeat. Some years ago I returned to St Bishoy’s Monastery and tried to find my way out into that silence, but a huge wall had been built around the monastery’s lands to stop squatters from invading and taking it by force of occupation. I was locked in! And finding my out from another exit only led me to huts and farmland where previously there had been only desert sand. The inexorable spread of humanity is eating away at the desert. No doubt the vast silence is still out there, but alas – too far for my feet to take me there!
Many times I have tried to find that silence in the Australian bush, in the countryside, but there is just too much life in this place, and life means sound. Perhaps, somewhere out in the Gibson Desert or near the Olgas one might find that absolute silence?
Why should anyone desire silence? For many, silence is identified with death, sound with life. Who wants death?
In the stillness of the silent desert, I experienced what it really means to have no distractions. The silence seeped not only into my ears, but my very soul. My spirit was stilled; all its constant chatter, its complaint, its judging, its anger fell silent. My sense of knowing and understanding the world fell silent. My sense of self-importance fell silent (out here, what does a human being matter?) All these constant companions who so easily distract me from perceiving my Maker were gently silenced, sedated temporarily if not put to death permanently, and I opened my heart and my mind to the God of my silence. The joy was indescribable. The peace, transcendent. Incredibly, in this deathly silence, I felt more alive than any other time in my life.
We find it easiest in prayer to speak, hardest to listen. Doubts flood in: “You’re crazy! What are you listening for? God will not speak to you! If someone saw you they’d think you insane.” We feel better when we speak, for we want to be heard. No one listens these days, and here is a captive audience – God has to listen to me. It is true, He wants to listen to me. But I think, He also wants me to listen to Him.
It is very hard to listen when you are speaking. Equally hard to listen when there is noise in the background. To hear God’s voice, we need to stop speaking and pay attention, and we need to silence the chatter of our minds. There is great peace to be found in emptying one’s thoughts, laying aside all that presses of the world’s cares, and just … listening. If the desert is inaccessible to me, there is always the closed room, the empty church, the sunny garden. Places that make it easier to listen…
To listen to the God of my Silence…