Four Ways of Religion–Part 2 Silence

Last week, I started writing about John Haught’s book What Is Religion? in which he examines five major religious traditions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and from them comes up with four “ways” of being religious: sacramentalism, mysticism, silence, and action. One of his main arguments is that authentic religious practice (and authentic religious traditions, for that matter) find a way to balance all four of these “ways” of doing religion. Reading this led me to examine the balance in my own religious practice, starting with sacramentalism and mysticism last week. This week I consider silence. (Next week, action.)

Silence is one of the ways of doing religion. This may seem like a contraction, at first, since silence appears to equate with doing nothing. Silence stems from the recognition that words fail us when we strive to describe the ultimate mystery of the universe. In the Christian tradition, we try to find ways to talk about God, but in the end, God is beyond our human words and thoughts. As an example, think about how we use gender to talk about God. We describe God as Father and Mother, as He and She, all the while recognizing that God is not male or female like human beings are male or female. We know that God is like our human parents, but also not like them, all at the same time.

Photo:   mikecogh via Creative Commons License

Photo: mikecogh via Creative Commons License

Those who practice silence argue that God reveals God’s mysterious self to human beings in the emptiness of silence. As we quiet our minds and imaginations, we may find ourselves entering into a mystery for which there truly are no words. In a sense, silence protects God from our desire to make God like ourselves. In silence, God gets to just be God, apart from our human attempts to box God in.

In many ways, I crave silence in my life. I am quite sensitive to noise, so by the end of a long and noisy day, I find myself asking my husband to turn off the iPod, even if it is my play list he has cued up. Every night I sleep with ear plugs in my ears, in an effort to muffle the little noises that make up the symphony of the night. Yet when it comes time for prayer, silence sort of feels like wasting time. Like many of us, I am a busy person, with a to do list that never seems to get shorter. So on the occasions when I have tried to incorporate silence into my prayer life, I find my mind wandering (and adding items to my to do list) and I eventually say to myself, “Well, I have better things to do than to sit here in silence.”

I also suspect that beneath my impatience with silence lies a fear of it. What if I am silent and listening for God and God never speaks? What if God does speak and tells me something that I am not ready to hear , something that will demand that I make a real change in my life (like what if God told me that my to do lists show that busyness is keeping me from what is most important in life)? Silence can be scary, but I do get why it is important for us as human beings. We need to take the time to stop talking to God and rather sit and listen. We need to take the time to stop asking God for things and to receive what God is offering us. And we need to take a break from knowing everything in order to sit with the utter mystery of God and of life, no matter how hard this may seem.

As I write this, it has become apparent that silence is the way of religion that is most out of balance in my life.  As part of my Lenten practice this year, I am going to add a time for silence each day. To make it less scary, I am going to start with just one minute of silence. Once I can get through one minute of silence, I will start to add minutes, one at a time. A technique I remember from a prayer class I took in high school is not to get frustrated with yourself when your mind wanders during silence. Rather, simply acknowledge that your mind has gotten off track and gently direct your attention back to the silence and to the listening and to the attentiveness to God. Like anything, silence takes practice.

  • How do you feel about silence? Do you like it or do you like to have noise around you?
  • When do you experience silence during your day or during your week?
  • How might you be able to incorporate silence into your life during Lent?

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