Why I’m Afraid of Silence

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Drive three hours. Arrive at monastery. Check in. Unpack duffle bag consisting of proper amounts of toiletries, clothes, choice books and journal. Read for ninety minutes. Pack up bag. Drive three hours home.

The moment was rather embarrassing although it’s definitely advantageous for my job. As a pastor, part of my weekly duties is to develop some sort of interesting story or analogy to illustrate whatever point is necessary. Therefore it was easy to take my inability to take a sabbatical and turn it into an amusing anecdote.

The reality was that I was absolutely ecstatic to have several days to myself to read, write, study, pray and immerse myself into the spiritual world I so easily dismiss with my busy schedule. A concept like Sabbath is so easy to forget about, considering I’m so busy doing God’s work. Pulling into the driveway at the monastery and its campus seemed to be a spiritual dream come true. After all, endless paths through peaceful woods next to an equally placid lake…it’s perfect for such a time as that.

But I couldn’t do it. I nervously stood in my window and looked out and realized how much time I had ahead of me. I read for a half hour and journaled for another twenty minutes. Glancing to and fro completed my first hour there and I was already mentally panicking. No internet. No access to the outside world. Just me, a few gathered belongings and my Creator. And I learned it sounds much better than it really is.

I got home and made a joke of it. While at the monastery I developed many reasons why this was poor stewardship of my time and how I needed to be present at home. There were articles I needed to write. There were people I needed to meet with. I can’t deny doing God’s work and just relaxing like I am living in my parents’ basement. The moment I got home, I realized what I’d done – wasting this planned moment and coming home to the hustle and bustle that made me want to leave in the first place.

So I used it as a story that Sunday morning. People nodded their heads as they understood and it was a nice moment where we all realized that we are just busy and it’s hard to unplug. I felt okay with my illustration – “Ha! That funny Matt. He’s just like me.” And I was going to be fine and forget the whole episode until one friend chastised me.

“You failed. And don’t paint it any other way. You were afraid. It’s not a joke and it’s not something to pass off lightly. I’m disappointed in you because I know that you needed this. But you’re afraid of being alone and you left out of fear.” He was right. I’m afraid of what I look like when there’s nobody to impress. I’m afraid of what God might say to me or ask of me when I give him all the time in the world. I’m afraid of being, well, naked and ashamed as humans can tend to be.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. I look around and it’s hard to find anyone willing to endure the silence. I am surrounded by a culture refusing to allow stillness to find their soul, to allow themselves to be re-created. Wendell Berry says it best, I believe:

“There is indeed a potential terror of [silence]. It asks a man what is the use and what is the worth of his life. It asks him who he thinks he is, and what he thinks he’s doing, and where he thinks he’s going. In it the world and its places and aspects are apt to become present to him, the lives of water and trees and stars surround his life and press their obscure demands. Once it is attended to, admitted into the head one must bear a greater burden of consciousness and knowledge – one must change one’s life. If one has nothing within oneself with which to respond, it would be unbearable. If the silence within the man should be touched by the impenetrable silence that ultimately surrounds him, what might happen to the thin partition of flesh and possessions?

“In the face of that silence…no wonder he turns on the radio. No wonder he goes as fast as he can. Pursued into the wilderness by questions he is afraid even to ask, no wonder he finds his comfort – to his bewilderment, surely – in what he thought he wanted to be free of: crowdedness and commotion and hurry and mess.”

My thoughts exactly.

Matt Conner is a freelance writer and music journalist. As the founding pastor of The Mercy House, he led a church community for more than six years in intense community development across racial and socio-economic lines. As a writer, he’s interviewed thousands of musicians for multiple print and web-based publications.


9 Comments

  1. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Great post Matt.

    As a 36-year-old single guy, I live alone and have for most of my adult life. I’ve got silence around me all the time and you’re right, it is scary. Man was not meant to be alone and I feel it deeply everyday when I come home from work to my empty house. I loathe my days off because for me, days off are exile from other people. Does it give me time to do things I want to do, sure, but after years and years of having no one to please but myself, I find it more and more difficult all the time to find motivation and escape from depression. I’m terrified to think of what I might have become were God not there to fill the silence at times. Silence can be good, but you can have too much of a good thing.

    I understand that for some people, people with busy lives and famlies, that aloneness can be alluring, refreshing, and therapeutic, but to others, like me, aloneness is awful, not because we are afraid of it, but because we are afraid we might never escape it.

  2. Peter

    I was going to thank you for writing this and mention how it described a feeling I am personally familiar with, something I experienced myself last time I went to the monastery, something that I don’t really know what to do about. But then I realized I still had work to do tonight, and some email to open, projects to complete, a blog or two to read, some music to download…

    (Here’s a question — when you’re reading articles and such online, how often do you really actually READ them? Or have you gotten in the habit, like me, of skipping around, trying to get the general idea so you can move on to the next thing in your long list of “things to check”? Is this true in the offline world as well? It seems to me I’m spending a considerable amount of time not spending time on anything in particular. What is up with that?)

    In any case, I’m obviously way too busy to participate in this conversation. So I’ll just say “yes” and “thank you”.

  3. Paul Hutchinson

    I thought I would share my own positive experience of discovering silent retreats. A friend of mine recommended a Jesuit retreat house that she’d been to. The idea really appealled to me – I was quite aware of how the familiar spiritual experiences of my Evangelical Protestant experience tended to be characterised by hectic activity (summer camps, conferences etc), and I instinctively felt that something was amiss.

    So I signed up for a four day silent retreat. Now, the good thing about silent retreats with the Jesuits is that they’re not completely silent – you get half an hour a day to talk things through with a director, and I would say that that’s invaluable. The director isn’t there to sort out your life, or to be an external voice of discipline – he or she is there to listen and make suggestions, to help you to pay attention to the conversation that is going on between you and God over your time away.

    It took me about 3 of the 4 days of my first retreat to “get it”. I neatly organised my time into little activities – checking out the different prayer rooms in the house, walking the grounds, perusing the centre’s library and book shop, going to the little evening service in the house, reading one of several books I’d brought with me (of the worthwhile “spiritual” type), and even trying out the suggestions that my director had made (e.g. imaginative contemplation-type things, doing some creative things in the art room).

    Round about day 3, while spending time with a bible passage that my director suggested, the silence crept up on me and I “got it” – I realised that were was stuff I really wanted to talk to me about, and conversely, I realised there was stuff he really wanted to talk to me about as well. I ended up feeling quite annoyed with myself for bringing so many books, when in the end, that had only delayed the experience of God creeping up on me, and left me with less time at the end of the retreat to talk openly about what was going on. I had been filling my time focusing my thoughts on spiritual books that were full of someone else’s helpful principles, when my time could more profitably have been spent drinking mugs of coffee and staring out the window!

    Since then I’ve gone on two more similar retreats, one 4 days, and the next one 8 days (when I realised that once you enter into the time away properly, 4 days can really feel like its not enough!) I went to a conference with Dallas Willard where he shared his own self-discipline of a quiet weekend every 6 months – and so my own rule of thumb I took away from this was a week-long retreat roughly every year. I’ve found this absolutely invaluable as an annual spiritual reality check – “so where exactly am I with my relationship with God these days?”

    But from personal experience, I think I would recommend going on retreat with a group that has some experience of spiritual direction (or soul friendship, or whatever else it might be called). If you really don’t know what to do with a load of silent space, then it’s very helpful to have someone there to make some simple suggestions; and who has enough wisdom to listen to what’s going in your spiritual life, and not try to send you off in a completely irrelevant or unhelpful direction.

    The Jesuits are very good at this sort of thing (the first book on a Jesuit’s reading list after the Bible is “The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola”, a collection of practical observations on people’s experiences of God, things that often prove to be a help or hindrance along the way). I understand that the Benedictines have a tradition of this work as well, as do some other monastic communities (but not all).

    Anyway, enough rambling – that’s been my own experience of silent retreats, just thought I would share them!

  4. Paul Hutchinson

    P.S. All that is not to say that I don’t find silence a scary business – it certainly is! Who knows what God’s going to say to you whenever you stop long enough to listen…

  5. Brent

    It is easy to deflect failures into an illustration, when we really are just trying to put them out for acceptance by other people. You’ve got a great friend who challenged that notion. I have not done a retreat, but have talked about it often enough. For most of my life it has seemingly been enough to live off of the experiences of others and be happy to “get it”, but not living it out like I should. This is all a part of the process of not getting it, but becoming it. So thank you for helping me think and identify.

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