What do silence and solitude have to do with spirituality and Christian faith?
There is a long and rich tradition of seeking in silence the Divine and self-discernment within Christianity. This sort of practice developed a lot in the 3rd-5th centuries with the rise of monasticism in Christianity. One of the earliest desert monks wrote extensively about a concept called hesychia, which is practicing a deep inner stillness and silence. Hesychia isn’t just about finding a quiet environment or a place without distractions. It is about cultivating a profound inner tranquility and quietness in your soul. Much of the practice of hesychia has to do with wrestling the endless stream of thoughts that flood into our mind, which if we are not careful of and paying attention to, can be relentlessly noisy and drown out all shimmers of silence and stillness in ourselves. With increasing practice of contemplative prayer and silent meditation, though, we can break through to moments of this precious silence that rests deep within us. And this can be a place where God’s voice rises up most clearly to our consciousness, a place where we can pursue discernment and knowledge of ourselves beneath the noise and tasks of daily life with greater sensitivity and clarity.
What can contemplative prayer and silent meditation do for my spirituality and personal well-being? How can silence be a form of pilgrimage?
Purposefully seeking to find silence and stillness within yourself is a pilgrimage—into yourself. It is a journey to the interior of who you are. We do not need to travel to the top of a mountain or a far off island to enter a pilgrimage of self-discovery. The deep silence within yourself is a place where God can reveal secrets to you and bring to your awareness things that you would not perceive otherwise. The unique characteristic of contemplative prayer and silent meditation is that it minimizes the potential for escape from yourself in the world and the events around you that actual travel and activities would provide.
We often run away from ourselves by doing things and going places. But the real challenge is to sit with ourselves and venture into the world within us. As we progress deeper into who we are, we get in touch with those things that reside in our mind and heart, and if we allow ourselves to dip into the peaceful stream of inner stillness, we might just catch a glimpse of our true reflection in the water. This really is the greatest pilgrimage you can make, but it is one which is never truly complete.
How do I practice contemplative prayer and silent meditation?
It depends on how experienced and how comfortable someone is with silence and with being silent. Each person who strives to enter the inner quietness of their soul will face unique barriers and obstacles to achieving that point. The practice of silence takes time to cultivate and to learn how to find it in yourself. The deeper someone wants to go into the silence, the longer it takes to learn how to get there, and the longer it takes to arrive at that point. It might take an entire day to move past the immediate attention to your life and the unnecessary commotion your consciousness carries around with you all the time. Some people will take silent weekend retreats alone for the express purpose of finding the deep silence within themselves.
Attempting to find silence will be met with resistance.
One of the most critical aspects of practicing contemplative prayer and silent meditation is to honor the principle of stability. Stability refers to both external and internal factors. External stability refers to an outward practice of staying in one physical place with as minimal movement as possible. Also, external stability is associated with even, rhythmic breathing that calms and focuses the mind and body. Paying attention to your breathing is a powerful way of grounding and staying your attention, bringing your awareness to the present moment and narrowing the realm of your consciousness. But perhaps even more vital to finding silence is the inward disposition of not being afraid to proceed deeper into yourself. Being fickle and timid about entering the silence usually results with being tempted to run away from the struggle and uncomfortable encounters with your true self. Most of our resistance to silence comes from already knowing that there are layers and layers of old habits, thought patterns, and undesired character traits that we don’t want to face and think about. Our own inner critic can be especially fierce and aggressive in our pursuit of silence.
The greatest virtue in this journey is to stay faithful and to not waver when the path gets tough, to keep steadily breathing as an anchor to help center your attention, and to simply observe your thoughts without judgment. If discomforting or confusing thoughts emerge, do not follow them down the trail they want to take you, and do not condemn and berate yourself for having these thoughts. The purpose of contemplative prayer and silent meditation is to simply take note of what is happening inside of you and what the silence reveals to you.
Our lives are filled with a constant barrage of comments and criticisms about what is happening all the time. But oftentimes we are so busy carrying on with our day that we just don’t notice it in the rush and chatter of our lives. A silent retreat gives us a chance to be without that and to focus on ourselves and to be able to better hear the voice of the Lord. When we enter the silence, the greatest gift we can give ourselves is to be ready and willing to receive the things we discover and to do so with compassion toward ourselves. The journey into silence is not helpful if we use the opportunity to get down on ourselves about the things we don’t like and wish we could change. Practicing silence is a technique for discovery, not for recovery. You may learn things about yourself that you need to address or need help with. But in the silence, just take it all in without reserve and without denial or condemnation.
Should I tell people about my time in contemplative prayer and silent meditation or is what I discover only for me to know about?
The purpose of a silent retreat is to seek to transform your life by self-awareness. So be gentle and considerate with others in your life who may or may not also be journeying into the silence of their lives. You can share your experience in the silence with others but somewhat cautiously, with wisdom and deliberation. For those who haven’t been experiencing the peace and clarity that the deep silence can bring the same way you might be, it may be hard for them to receive and understand your experience and how it is affecting you, of how it is changing you. Meeting with a spiritual companion or “soul friend” after a silent retreat to share and name what you observed and now understand is especially important as a way of acknowledging it and honoring it. Acknowledging and honoring what we realize about ourselves during the silence is what enables us to absorb and appropriate these discoveries in our life.
Oftentimes the transition from a silence back into normal life can feel abrupt and possibly disorienting. How can the transition be done more smoothly?
It is a good idea to have some small practice following your silent retreat that helps bring you back to your normal state and daily life routine. Maybe it is ending your return from silence with a soft vocal prayer, or maybe it is the gentle recitation of a poem, a quote or saying, or a particular Bible verse. Whatever you choose to do, allow it to re-orient you to normal life and to set you in a good frame of mind to enter back into the noisy and busy world around you.
How should I look back and evaluate any transformation during my experience in silence?
The key question to ask is: “Have I grown in understanding myself and in compassion toward who I am?” These two components—understanding and compassion—are indispensable in developing a healthy spiritual life. If we don’t know who we are, and if we cannot learn to be compassionate toward ourselves, we will not be understanding and compassionate toward others. Loving yourself is a prerequisite for loving others. And if you do not understand who you are, it is hard to truly say you love who you are—you cannot love something you do not know.
Do I need to spend an entire day in silence in order to benefit from the practice?
Absolutely not! Even a practice of five minutes of silence each day can be transformative and get you in touch with a deeper dimension of who you are. Any activity or behavior that you can do in daily life to bring the quality of silence and stillness will reward you many times over.
If you have a couple of hours on a weekend, consider taking the opportunity to sit in silence for a longer period of time. Afterward, it can be of immense value to write down on a note card or in a journal at least one new thing you discovered about yourself. You might find that you will continue to learn new things in similar categories, perhaps because you will learn aspects of yourself you know little about. And therefore, there is much to learn and discover.
Remember that contemplative prayer and silent meditation is a lifelong journey and everyone who practices it is seeking the same thing: to better know who they are. We are always growing and deepening in our understanding of ourselves throughout our life, and when we slide away from practicing self-discovery, the key is to gently bring ourselves back and begin again. No one loses in this journey, and no one is left behind. We are all simply seeking to find ourselves in the silence. ~JW