Photo Credit: Ryan Klinck

Photo Credit: Ryan Klinck

By Larry Duggins

As a contemplative myself, I am always interested when people talk about silence. For most, a time of silence is about withdrawal from the everyday world for a time of introspection. It is quite common for people to describe a time of silence wistfully, as if it were some unachievable goal. When I suggest getting up a little earlier, or going to bed a few minutes later, or setting an alarm during the day, people often smile and set the idea aside, unwilling to devote any time in their schedule for something as self-indulgent as a quiet time for themselves.

Limiting one’s perspective in such a manner misses a very important aspect of silence—the fact that silence can be a great gift to others. Quiet and attentive listening can bless others deeply. The willingness to listen silently, having the discipline and patience to just listen without commenting, correcting, or pontificating, can be a great gift to someone with a joy or a burden. Allowing them to tell their story with all of its rabbit trails intact can be therapeutic, as it allows the person to hear themselves speak as they tell the story. Any interruption, no matter how well-intended, disrupts the flow of the story-teller’s narrative, which reduces the ability to “get the story off their chest.” The act of telling a story aloud can trigger responses and insights that are sometimes missed when only the inner voice is speaking. Telling the entire story without interruption can unearth False narratives, Assumptions, Interpretations, and Limiting beliefs—FAILs that can hold a person back or restrict the ability to see new possibilities or courses of action. The gift of listening silently can change a person’s life.

As we consider solitary silence, the power of contemplative companioning with regard to our relationship with God comes into play. If the gift of silence that we give others is powerful and life-giving, we should not be surprised that God returns that gift to us by remaining silent as we tell our story. We can rely on God to listen to us, and to listen completely as we tell our stories, sing our praises, and list our woes. We can tell our stories completely, without spin or guilt or reservation, with complete confidence that God will listen. This is a more complete approach to the practice of confession, which has been tainted by limiting confession to listing sins and errors. God will listen to those too, but invites us to tell the whole story, both good and bad.

But if we spend our entire time in silence allowing our inner voice to yammer on without end, we limit God’s ability to speak back. God will listen and listen as we talk, patiently allowing us to tell our story and giving us the gift of attentive listening. We need to give God the same gift, quieting our inner “monkey mind” and giving God the gift of attentive listening so that God can share the story God has for us. If we can be quiet, we can hear.

This insight directly contradicts the impression of silence as a self-indulgent luxury. In addition to providing a time to decompress and rest, silence can also be a deeply kenotic gift to those around us through attentive listening. It can also be a grace-filled time of sharing our stories with God, opening our arms wide to receive God’s gift of listening. Finally, silence can allow us to return the gift of loving attentiveness to God, quietly and respectfully clearing a space for God to share God’s story with us.