On the Benefit of Silence and Solitude

Have you ever noticed that during the Eucharist (or when you participate in Communion or the Lord's Supper) there is a somber quality among all gathered? I had not given the matter much thought until I read the following, from Thomas Merton, "Our liturgy has a peculiar intensity of its own precisely because it is so straightfaced and non-committal. Never an exclamation! Never any outcry!"1 Anyone unfamiliar with the scriptures, unfamiliar with the story, might cry out, defending Christ, insisting that the Man is innocent of this judgment. But we are too familiar. We have heard the story a thousand or more times over.

Merton confesses that the Eucharist "delights and baffles" him at the same time: "This beautiful mixture of happiness and lucidity and inarticulateness fills me with great health from day to day. I am forced to be simple at the altar."2 I, too, am silent at the altar. There, in the quietness of the moment, existence as I understand it is right, pure, peaceful. "The Bread of Heaven." "The Cup of Salvation." But none of us complains against the means by which we benefit from this Bread of Heaven, this Cup of Salvation, this Holy Food and Drink of New and Unending Life. (John 6:48, 49, 50, 51, 53, 54, 55) We eat, we drink, in silence.

Yet Silence is also the manner in which Jesus Himself was led to His death: "He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth." (Isa. 53:7; Acts 8:32) He did not open His mouth. St John writes: "When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour." (Rev. 8:1) There are moments in our lives when silence is the only appropriate, the only holy, response.

The Wise scribbler writes: "Even fools are considered wise when they keep their mouths shut." (Prov. 17:28) Indeed, being too familiar with Christ, with the world, with myself, I too often speak (write or communicate) when safe silence is required. Thomas à Kempis writes: "No one safely appears abroad but the one who gladly hides away. No one safely speaks but the one who willingly holds the peace. No one safely rules but the one who is willingly in subjection. No one safely commands but the one who has learned well to obey. No one safely rejoices unless within the witness of a good conscience (Acts 23:1)."3 I appreciate his attention to safety within the context of restraint. There is great wisdom here: silence, when appropriate, can be safe and healthy -- healthy emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually.


The Wise scribbler also acknowledges that there is "a time to keep silence, and a time to speak." (Eccl. 3:7) Henri Nouwen intuits: "Somewhere [within us] we know that without a lonely place [and a time to ourselves in solitude], our lives are in danger. Somewhere we know that, without silence, words lose their meaning; that, without listening, speaking no longer heals; that, without distance, closeness cannot cure."4 But too many in our culture fear silence; they cannot tolerate silence, to sit in silence, and even dread silence.

We need silence and solitude as much as we need communication and communion with others. Finding the balance between the two, however, can be difficult. Too much communication and communion with others and we become spiritually-shallow mortals. Too much silence and solitude and we become introverts and of no use to the Kingdom of God and to others. What shall we do? We pray for wisdom. (James 1:5) We ask God to instill within us a spiritual intuition, a "still, small voice" (1 Kings 19:12), that will alert us to those times when silence and solitude are beneficial to our soul, and pleasing to the Lord.


1 Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1953), 200.

2 Ibid.

3 Thomas à Kempis, Of the Imitation of Christ (New Kensington: Whitaker House, 2005), 37. The original masculine-oriented language is changed to accommodate all people.

4 Henri J.M. Nouwen, Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2005), 18. The punctuation in the final sentence has been altered to corroborate with American standards.


The Episcocrat said...

I must be crazy; but I'm opening up comments again. Lord, help me, and help us all.

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.