Karla M. Kincannon is the Director of Field Education and Vocational Formation and Church Leadership, and the artist-in-residence at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois
Have you ever noticed the cacophony of sounds in many Protestant worship services? Words are spoken, sung, whispered, prayed, and shouted. Music rocks the walls, elevating worshipers to fervent praise, or softly soothes souls struggling to find peace. During rare moments of silent prayer, one often hears stifled coughing, restless children playing with church bulletins, an occasional thud as a stray hymnal hits the floor, and music playing softly in the background. Rarely is a moment of pure silence found in most worship services.
Silence is essential for the spiritual life. It is one of the first steps toward a deeper relationship with God. There is a story about the Desert Father, Abbot Arsenius, who, when seeking salvation, prayed to the Lord, “Lead me to salvation.” A voice answered him, saying, “Be silent.” Silence is a critical, though often ignored component of contemporary Christian spiritual practice.
Beginning with the Hebrews, silence has been part of our Christian tradition. Moses met God in the silence on Mt. Sinai; and Elijah discovered that God was not found in noise and activity, but in “a sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12, NRSV). Jesus, too, knew the power God found in the silence. He prepared for his ministry in the quiet of the desert and regularly found sustenance in quiet places where he rested in God. Part of the Church has always upheld the tradition of silence. Eastern and Western monasticism, mystics, and Quakers have kept alive this important aspect of Christianity, however unfamiliar it may be to mainline Protestants.
There is a richness to be experienced in the depths of corporate silence that many churches miss by excluding moments of “sheer silence” from their worship. Meister Eckhart (c. 1260–c. 1328), German theologian and mystic, is credited with saying there is nothing in the world that resembles God so much as silence. When the community gathers, the mystery of God comes to us out of the silence. Saint John of the cross, sixteenth-century Spanish mystic, said that the Creator spoke forth one Word in the silence. That Word was God’s Son. In order to hear God’s Son in the depths of our souls, we must listen in the silence.1
Why then, do we make so little time for corporate silence in worship? Sometimes we forget that worship is not about us, it is about God. In our forgetfulness, we tend to fill the silence with our creations, our words, our music, and our needs. Perhaps another reason we do not include the practice of silence in worship is because silence feels much like doing nothing, and we are a culture of “doers.” Like the prophet Elijah, we are unaccustomed to inactivity. In our media-savvy culture, there is increasing pressure for worship to entertain, and silence is sometimes viewed as empty airtime. Nothing could be further from the truth. Silence is pregnant with the living presence of God, but we must be taught to recognize the divine presence.
Silence is not easy; it is not part of contemporary culture. Attempting to minimize environmental sounds quickly reveals the difficulty of this practice. We live in a world crammed with noise. From mp3 players to airplanes, from elevator music to car stereos that rattle window, our lives are filled to the brim with noise that alienates us from the deep refreshment found in silence. If we are successful at silencing the external sounds, we soon learn how much prattle occurs in our minds.
How can we hear God’s Word to us amidst the noise of our lives? Hearing requires silence. Some of us may be afraid of what we will hear if we become still. Silence has the ability to reveal to us our deeper selves, warts, wrinkles, and all. For this reason we may avoid silence, not wanting to hear our deeper cries and longings. However, it is precisely our deeper selves with whom God desires to be in relationship. God loves us as we are and yearns to relate to us at the core of our being. The Divine Lover waits patiently for us to hear and respond to the invitation to move deeper into relationship with the one who created us. God wants our whole self to show up for worship.
Silence cannot be hurried or forced, but like any new skill, it can be practiced. Morton Kelsey writes silence is “like eating an artichoke. It must be done one leaf at a time, down to the heart. If you try to take it in a single bite, all you get is a mouthful of thistles.”2 When incorporating silence into worship services, it is best to start slowly with brief periods of silence lasting no longer than forty-five seconds. After the congregation becomes comfortable with this practice, the time period can be increased incrementally depending on the nature of the congregation. Learning the Christian practice of silence is actually easier in a group than trying this discipline on one’s own. The living power of Christ, present when the church gathers, eases the inherent difficulty of this Christian practice, and congregants soon discover the manna that is found in the silence.
The obvious place to introduce the practice of silence is prayer. By slowly increasing the time spent in silent prayer, congregants directly hear God’s specific Word spoken to them and experience the deepest kind of refreshment found only in the silence. In the tradition of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, this kind of silence was known as quies or “rest.” Quies is a kind of prayer during which one rests in God, experiencing firsthand the living presence of God’s transforming love.
There are other places in worship to incorporate silence naturally. Since silence empowers the spoken word, surrounding the reading of scripture with “a sound of sheer silence” enables the congregants to hear the Word unfolded in a new way. As counterintuitive as it may seem, preaching is another place to introduce silence. In “The Way of the Heart”, Henri Nouwen, suggests that God’s Word may be proclaimed in such a way that attention moves from the pulpit to the “heart of the listener.” This meditative way of preaching involves short comments followed by moments of silence and works especially well in small groups.
May your incorporation of silence into worship lead to a deeper relationship with God who loves us more than we can fathom!
First published in Ministry Matters on August 20, 2011. Reprint by permission. Sooy, the Worldview Church’s Worship and Arts editor, recommends Kincannon’s “Creativity and Divine Surprise: Finding the Place of Your Resurrection”. Purchases through the Colson Bookstore help financially support this ministry.