Tuesday with Michael Spencer: On Solitude and Silence

Barn on Spring Morning (2018)

Tuesday with Michael Spencer
(from March, 2009)

Next Reformation posted this bit of a 2008 CT interview with Richard Foster. (I mainly mention Foster to light up the radar of the discernabloggers. Boo!)

What is the discipline that you think we need to be exploring more at this point?

Solitude. It is the most foundational of the disciplines of abstinence, the via negativa. The evangelical passion for engagement with the world is good. But as Thomas à Kempis says, the only person who’s safe to travel is the person who’s free to stay at home. And Pascal said that we would solve the world’s problems if we just learned to sit in our room alone. Solitude is essential for right engagement.

I so appreciated in Bonhoeffer’s Life Together the chapter, “The Day Alone,” and the next chapter, “The Day Together.” You can’t be with people in a right way without being alone. And of course, you can’t be alone unless you’ve learned to be with people. Solitude teaches us to live in the presence of God so that we can be with people in a way that helps them and does not manipulate them.

Another thing we learn in solitude is to love the ways of God; we learn the cosmic patience of God. There’s the passage in Isaiah in which God says, “Your ways are not my ways,” and then goes on to describe how God’s ways are like the rain that comes down and waters the earth. Rain comes down and just disappears, and then up comes the life. It’s that type of patience.

In solitude, I learn to unhook myself from the compulsion to climb and push and shove. When I was pastoring that little church, I’d go off for some solitude and worry about what was happening to people and how they’re doing and whether they would get along without me. And of course, the great fear is that they’ll get along quite well without you! But you learn that’s okay. And that God’s in charge of that. You learn that he’s got the whole world in his hands.

Silence and solitude played a large part in my conversion. I wanted to play church basketball as a teenager, and to be on the team you had to do a “vigil,” which was 2 hours alone with a Bible and a lot of questions. It was one of the first times in my life I really sensed the presence of the living God speaking to and seeking after me.

I took a retreat at Merton’s monastery back in the 1980’s, when guests stayed in the old dormitory. The silence was thick. It wrapped around me and even though I was in a big room, I was intimidated. The silence the rest of the time was manageable, but that night silence was alive, big, ubiquitous.

This past year, my sabbatical gave me a lots of solitude and silence, and I wasn’t ready for it. I planned a week at St. Meinrad, and left after three days. The silence was driving me crazy. I traded it for the silence of the Brescia College library. More manageable for me.

In sabbatical orientation we talked about silence. They said don’t be afraid to sleep. Lots. That was good silence. I tend to forget that, and like too many adults, I get too little sleep. I should be asleep now.

My community is almost never silent, and when we are, we aren’t listening for God as much as we are listening for the next bit of trouble to break out. To really be silent, you have to stop listening. Go beneath the water and let the world above go on without you.

You aren’t silent to be pointed out as someone being silent. No, you are silent to pray. To hear. To hear the nothing that is the world in the presence of God, who is a crashing, blasting, exploding silence.

We’re a distracted world, piping in the noise any way we can. We now have devices that enable endless talking. We are in one another’s presence, but we can’t talk because we can’t be quiet. We have to talk into devices and listen to devices. Even at a seminar or prayer or a silent retreat.

Tell people they can’t have their talking gadgets and watch their faces.

This is one reason I’ve started playing chess again. It’s a game that values silence. It’s little noises are imperceptible to most people. Sighs. Clinking chessmen. Near silence, with movement only permitted in a complete respect for the game.

This is what prayer should be like. A canvas of silence, and on it we paint sparely, with few words and sounds. Our presence in His presence is noisy. His silence is absolute resolution to all our cacophony.

We gave up the tv. There won’t be silence, but there will be more silence of a kind. Less noise. More room to breath, sleep, read, pray, listen to the quiet.

Silence is no sacrament, no theological thing, no Protestant-Catholic thing. It is simply a good thing. A gift of immediacy; an invitation to the gifts that are as close as a heartbeat.

Lewis has Screwtape say that heaven is music, but hell is noise. Music has its pregnant, wondrous silences. Noise has nothing, but disturbs everything.

Silence is, in these times, incredibly cheap. Purchase some. Spend it wisely. Do something wonderful with it. Learn to be comfortable in it, rather than to run from it. Look into the silence, and see who is there, and how long he has been waiting.

10 thoughts on “Tuesday with Michael Spencer: On Solitude and Silence

  1. Great poem.

    “as he saw with a shock
    that the ringmaster’s face
    was his own.”

    Great twist.

    In fact… for your consideration… try a version of your poem that ends with that.


  2. I always love reading Michael Spencer.

    Today’s reaing made me think of a poem I wrote 20 years ago. It’s a bit lengthy, sorry.

    Be Still And Know

    Somebody told him, or maybe
    he read it in a book,
    “God speaks in silences,”
    but he, a creature of noise
    living in a land of achievement,
    filled his days and nights
    with meaningless activities
    because he had no time
    for silence.

    He rushed to obtain
    the prize that dangled before him,
    he pushed every obstacle out of the path,
    he devoted his energy to running the race;
    he was nearly trampled in the stampede.

    He sought the spotlights and the applause,
    public acclaim and celebrity,
    but the gods he worshiped were fickle deities
    who soon tired of him and
    turned their attention
    to other contestants.

    Shaken, abandoned,
    brushing the dust from his clothes,
    he left the arena unnoticed
    with the voice of the ringmaster,
    the one who had urged him on,
    ringing in his ears.

    He turned to curse the ringmaster,
    the one responsible for
    all of his miseries,
    but the curse died in his throat
    as he saw with a shock
    that the ringmaster’s face
    was his own.

    After a very long time,
    after the unmistakable
    laughter of demons
    finally stopped,

    there came
    a silence,


    He tried to convince himself
    that the silence was empty,
    that nothing was there,
    but after another very long time
    he realized with
    another shock
    that something
    indeed was there,
    no, Someone
    was most definitely there


    Finally he admitted
    to the deep, penetrating sky
    that he needed help,
    that he could not do it on his own,
    that he did not even know
    what it was he was supposed to be doing,
    and most important of all,
    that he was not in charge.

    At last,
    he begin to hear,
    though not with ears,
    faint at first
    but growing stronger,
    the undeniable
    singing of angels,
    the irresistible
    voice of God.


  3. Saw this on twitter………

    Fr. Giuseppe Berardelli, a 72-year-old priest who gave a respirator (that his parishioners had purchased for him), to a younger patient (whom he did not know), has died from #coronavirus.

    “Greater love has no person…” (Jn 15:13)


  4. This has given me a lot to think about. Silence. But so much of the noise is in my head. Or in my eyes, as I look at a screen; my hands as I think I need to reply.


  5. “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
    – Blaise Pascal


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