(Learn to Discern, Principle #10)
When was the last time you spent 10 minutes in total silence? No noise, no distractions, no background ambiance: just total, complete silence? This was a question I asked some high school students several years ago (before smart phones were even the norm.) Most of them said that they had never done so in their entire lives.
An entire life lived without ten minutes of silence.
Naturally, I assigned them this task as part of their homework. They had to go somewhere alone, preferably in nature, without electronic gadgets and without other people, to sit in total silence for 10 whole minutes. For those who were open to it, this kind of exercise actually changed their approach to life. They learned the value of contemplation and the benefits of settling their souls into stillness in a world of rush and busyness.
Why does silence hold such power? Why can a mere 10 minutes change us?
Embracing silence forces us to be present to ourselves. Cutting out external noise – audible and otherwise – means that we are left with our internal noise: the thoughts, worries, hopes, fears, dreams, and half-considered ideas that float around under the surface every day.
The truth is, many of us are uncomfortable with ourselves- and the easiest solution is to drown our interior life out. There’s nothing wrong with things like music, movies, podcasts, audiobooks, twitter, instagram, and all the other sirens that call to us from our devices. But when we allow them to be the constant “input” in our lives, we leave no room for self-reflection.
Discernment requires us to pay attention to our bodies, and to our souls. It’s hard to pay attention when we can’t hear ourselves think.
Embracing silence allows us to be present to the real world around us. So much of our modern noise is virtual that we often miss out on reality. How often have we walked past someone without noticing because we were staring at our phones? When is the last time we looked up to see the scenery out the train window instead of scrolling instagram for digital pictures of another landscape? Can we enjoy a cappuccino without documenting it?
Discernment requires that we engage with reality. We have to live in, and interact with, the world that God created in order for us to discern our place in it. Silence offers a us a chance to pause, to be still, and to notice. We can notice the beauty that is present, and the opportunity to create. We can notice the good that is being done, and the need to do more. We can notice the truth that is proclaimed, and that which longs to be spoken.
But we can’t notice anything when we’re drowning in noise.
Embracing silence allows us to be present to God. God can speak to us in many ways, but one of His favourites seems to be the still, small, voice. How can we hear that voice with YouTube blaring in our earbuds? Even our worship of Him, in songs of praise and words of prayer, needs to yield to periods of silence if we are genuinely going to listen.
Discernment invites God into the process of our decision-making. But why invite Someone you have no intention of listening to? Sometimes God’s voice is so still and so small that it sounds like one of our own ideas that “just popped into our heads”, but with wise guidance we can learn to recognise it as a Divine “nudge”. Noise, however, – both external and internal – prevents us from tuning into what may be God’s subtle indications pointing us in a good direction for our discernment.
Of course, embracing silence doesn’t come easy, especially if you’ve never made a habit of it. The best way to start is to start small. Five minutes if you can’t manage ten. Go for a walk in nature without your phone; wash the dishes to nothing but the sound of running water; pop into a church and light a candle. Stand still and watch it glow.
Wherever you choose to begin, commit to embracing both the discomfort and peace that will accompany your silent steps.