I had such a hard time packing for my weekend away — cramming my bag with a stack of contemplative practice books, an anthology of my personal prayer journals, candles, an array of writing of instruments, and an iPod fully loaded with chanting monks and Hillsong worship songs. What does one take to a three-day silent retreat? Apparently a lot of noise.
My husband I were in the throes of church planting in Harlem. Our commitment to reimagining church not as a building, but as an incarnational community living out the Gospel of Jesus Christ had left our calendars fully loaded with “to do” lists for neighborhood barbecues, marches against “stop and frisk” laws, and prayer circles that met in our home.
And I was tired. Not exhausted from loving our neighbors — those connections were life giving, but I was exhausted from the constant hum of demands permeating my every thought and prayer. I had thoughts about strategically extending our capacity for outreach or leveraging our networks to mobilize folks to action. And my prayers … well my prayers had degenerated into “Jesus-can-you-be-my-butler?” sorts of prayers. These are the kind of prayers often involved directing God toward what needed to be done to successfully complete the next project or event. Prayers that began with: “Creator God, the barbecue is tomorrow, but the weather forecast says it’s going to rain; please give us a beautiful sunny day.” These prayers were doing little to sustain my soul. And one day as I found myself once again binging on old episodes of Arrested Development while secretly eating an entire bag of my son’s cheesy goldfish crackers, I realized that I was teetering on burnout.
So off I went to “fix” my exhaustion with a three-day silent retreat. I was prepared to maximize my silent time. I intellectually agreed with the importance of nourishing the soul with silence and was compelled by the many times that Scripture shows us how Jesus left crowds to be alone with God (Mark 1:35). Nonetheless, there I was packing the noise. My human drive toward activity had once again reared its seductive head.
Silence as a spiritual discipline is not simply an outlet to avoid burnout or for when the distractions of Facebook are no longer sufficiently numbing our exhaustion and busyness. Our humanity requires ongoing practices of silence in order to listen to God. Thomas Keating beautifully noted this truth when he wrote, “Silence is God's first language; everything else is a poor translation.” Practicing silence creates a sacred barrier that serves to protect us from the frenzy of activity that can flood our lives in such a way that there is no room to listen to God.
That weekend, I left the poor translations: the iPod, the journals, and the books. I decided instead to make the bed, watch the birds, take a nap, pick some wildflowers, and drink fresh water. And soon enough, my soul was receiving God’s love, beauty, and provision through the quiet, even mundane human activities we often forget we need to live.
Silence can be more than a spiritual discipline we surrender to when we’ve exhausted all other forms of active practices. Choosing to practice quiet and solitude — without the readily available distractions of the Internet, buzzing cellphones, or the constant stream of music in our headphones — can provide countercultural openings to listen and experience the tender love of God.
Undoubtedly, I will never be confused with one of the early Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers. And I don’t have life rhythms that allow me to regularly flee the hustle of Harlem and head for a secluded monastery, but my practices of silence continue to flourish in small daily ways. Nourishing my soul with quiet and stillness has become an essential life-sustaining fuel for loving God, neighbor, and self well.
As co-laborers with Christ in repairing and bridging the connective tissues that unravel shalom in our local and global communities, where are the opportunities to incorporate silence in the mundane of our daily lives? This task isn’t easy, and it may require leaving some familiar noise behind. Yet the good news, God’s language through silence, continually seeks our wellbeing. She is ever waiting.
Dr. Mayra Lopez-Humphreys , part of the Emerging Voices Project, is a native New Yorker, professor, and pastor with more than 16 years of community engagement. She is also the associate pastor at Metro Hope Covenant Church, a multiethnic church that meets in Harlem’s historic National Black Theater.
Image: Boat on a silent sea, Hofhauser / Shutterstock.com