Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House
The silence around our war memorials is a profound one. Some of the interior engagement for individuals will be one of personal remembrance. For others it will be an opportunity to reflect with gratitude on the sacrifice of others. It is an example of silence emerging out of the failure of speech or music to express or meet the needs of the present. I have often experienced the same quality of silence at a graveside. It is an experience that is at the same time personal and corporate. There is energy in silence and there is also healing.
This experience of silence with others is a very rare experience. The tired slogan ‘speak to God before mass and other people afterwards’ never seems to have the desired effect. Silence in worship itself tends to make worship exclusive and not inclusive: small children do not quite understand the rules of silence in church. Where some grown-ups need silence their irritation with the noise of children breeds resentment. Many readers will be familiar with this sorry scenario. That helps no one, especially God.
Working in a retreat house ministry demonstrates daily that silence is golden, and yet silence is also a terrible obstacle and burden for some. This is often because they are addicted to sound: it helps them feel orientated emotionally and spiritually. I would never say that silence is an absolute necessity for everyone, but I would strongly advise anyone to develop times of silence in their routine. The vital practice is to create a silence that is a deliberate space for the Holy Spirit to move; simply ask the Lord to be present in the silence and to use it to its purpose. After a planned period has elapsed (I would recommend at least ten minutes), close with the Lord’s Prayer.
When individuals adopt this discipline, they often find it deepens their awareness of the interior noise of memory and imagination: sometimes they cannot see the point in it.
However, those that know these people well do remark on subtle but recognizable changes in attitudes and priorities in the one who sits in silence. That is why it is important for someone to accompany the silent sitter on their journey. There is a reason for these recognizable changes, which is that God works in us not because of us but despite us. This is grace. Silence dedicated to God is a means of grace.
First steps in silence can be very challenging and it is most helpful to have someone to share the experience with. There are myriad spiritual classics that explore every aspect of this way of praying, but no one learnt to pray in silence by reading books. Some books can help in confirming and informing the experience of prayer but they are not a substitute for it. This prayer is the experience of simple obedience to the teaching of Jesus who tells us to ‘go into our own room and close the door’. Jesus continues, ‘Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret will reward you’ (Matt. 6.6b). Note: he does not say ‘hear you’. He does go on to warn about using too many words. I find it most helpful to remember that in silence God sees me.