My life is a listening, [God’s] is a speaking. My salvation is to hear and respond. For this, my life must be silent. Hence my silence is my salvation. (Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude)
When I was in high school my class took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). The test is supposed to tell you which career you are best suited for. [Of course, armed with that information the military then tries to recruit you with a promise to pay you to learn those skills … and how to kill people for your country!] My ASVAB results showed that the job I am best suited for is that of air traffic controller. I had to laugh when I saw it … then smiled at the second best thing the test said I am most suited for … journalist or writer. Hey, I suppose there is something to those tests after all! But … air traffic controller? I was amused and a little dumbfounded.
My friends and family were not as surprised though. If fact, they thought it was the perfect job for me. You see I have the ability to do 20 things at once … no problem. I thrive on noise, chaos and constant, ongoing, action. I can multi-task easily. I can write while talking or write while singing along to a CD or listen to three or more things at once and know exactly what’s being said or going on in all the conversations around me. In fact, in one of my most recent jobs at a radio network I was in charge of the main intake room for sound on stories. I oversaw dozens of feeds coming in from around the world, and also conducted phone interviews while monitoring all these incoming feeds. My boss was giving a tour to some friends and showed them my studio. He told them, “This is our main control room. Candace is sort of our ‘air traffic controller.'” I had to laugh at just how accurate that old military test had been. I was a journalist, yes … but at the same time I had fulfilled my destiny as an air traffic controller.
I am in my element when things are noisy and chaotic. I take a certain comfort in noise … any noise. I’ve always been very uncomfortable with silence. It makes me nervous, restless. I can’t seem to concentrate when there’s no sound taking up the empty space of silence. I believe many people feel this way … silence means something is wrong … out of place. When we encounter silence we seek to fill it … with anything … television, mindless chatter, or music. Silence is seen as something threatening and foreboding, especially if we perceive that silence as coming from God.
Recently I’ve come to appreciate silence. Even now, as I write this article, I am in silence. A year or so ago I would have been writing with at least the radio on … if not the radio, television and some major appliance humming in the background. Silence no longer scares me. Instead, it’s become a comfort. The change has been subtle and profound.
My acquaintance with silence began after the break-up of my 8-year relationship. Not long after, I met woman who loved silence. It was puzzling to me. We’d spend time together … much of it in silence [she the first person I’ve met who best reflects the Buddhist axiom of “Speak only if you can improve the silence.”] … and it made me uncomfortable. I needed noise. She, being kind, would tolerate the noise of the television sometimes when the silence became too much for me … but encouraged me to take time in the silence to try to feel comfortable. It was very difficult for me. Noise has played such an important role in how I’ve spent my time … and how I have conducted my career as a journalist. I found I couldn’t just shut it off.
A change in my job shortly after the break-up also helped me come to embrace silence. I no longer work in the “air traffic control tower” of a busy radio network. I’m still in a newsroom, but it’s one of the quietest newsrooms I’ve ever worked in. Each workstation has a television, complete with headphones. Even though the room is often crowded, it is usually rather quiet as each person does their job. The particular colleagues that I work with are naturally silent people. I found it discomfiting at first … but now have come to enjoy the silent camaraderie we share. We speak when we need to … whether it is to conduct a personal or professional conversation. In the interim, we work in silence … a companionable silence.
In the past few months I’ve come to welcome the silence, and even crave it now and then. One of the joys of my new apartment is that it’s within walking distance of the local Quaker congregation. I’ve enjoyed the services of silent meditation in the midst of other believers. The absence of dogma and ritual has seemed to result in a clearer channel between God and myself. Sitting in the presence of others … in the presence of God … has opened up a whole new world of solitude to me that I am just now learning how to cultivate and enjoy.
How God Speaks
How do we even know God is speaking? What does God sound like when God speaks to us? How can we discern what is God’s word to us and what is our own word?
The Bible gives us a model to go by. In 1 Kings 19, God speaks to the prophet Elijah. He has defeated the prophets of Baal in a contest by calling down fire from heaven to consume a sopping wet altar to Yahweh. His defeat of Baal, however, angers the king and makes him a fugitive. While hiding out, God speaks to Elijah. God’s voice is distinct and unmistakable. God’s speaking is not presented in a grand or majestic manner. God is not heard in the wind, or through the earthquake or through the fire. Instead, Elijah hears God as “a still small voice.” [1 Kings 19:12]
The “still small voice” of God is one that speaks directly to our hearts. We know God has spoken when we feel it deep within ourselves. So often we want a grand sign from God, a big show, to let us know that we’ve correctly heard God and know where we’re going. But, God doesn’t come to us in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire … instead, God is the “still small voice” … that tugs at our hearts and makes the right path known.
So often we limit how God can speak to us. Wanting God to speak loudly, with a grand show, is to limit how God can speak. I’ve talked with many a fundamentalist who believes God can only speak through the Bible. Any extra-biblical revelation is automatically not from God. What a terrible way to limit God! God is bigger than any book, no matter how divine the inspiration of that writing!
God speaks to us every day … if only we’ll take the time to stop and listen. I’ve heard that still small voice of God in everything from song lyrics, to television shows to the words of a stranger or a friend. We’re all connected. We are all part of that same ground of being that is God. Who are we to limit how God can speak to us? Think of the millions of messages from God that we miss each day, simply because we’re not paying attention! Simply because we’ve cut off so many lines of communication that God could be using to speak truth to our hearts!
We need to open our hearts to God, to till the soil of our souls until it is fertile and ready to receive the word. If we allow God to speak to us, even in the smallest and most mundane ways, we will find that God is hardly ever silent, but is telling us always which way to turn, which choice to make, and which path to tread to be within God’s will.
Is God Silent, or am I Deaf?
I remember when, as a teenager, the difficulty of coming to grips with my homosexuality. I fought God at every turn. I prayed to be made heterosexual … I pleaded with God to take my homosexual orientation away. When my orientation did not change, and in fact, grew stronger, I bitterly accused God of turning a deaf ear to my complaint … of ignoring me. I railed against God, screamed at God and begged God to speak to me! It wasn’t until years later that I realized that God had been speaking to me all along. God was answering my prayer loudly and clearly. The answer was [paraphrasing here], “No, I will not make you heterosexual since I have made you homosexual. Deal with it.”
I now realize that it wasn’t that God was silent during those times … God was speaking loudly, in fact. In reality, I was deaf. God was telling me something I definitely did not want to hear at that point in my life. So, I chose not to hear it.
How often do we mistake God’s silence for our own deafness? How often do we pray, knowing the answer we want to receive, and then refuse to hear God’s answer when it doesn’t match up to our own? We accuse God of abandoning us, of not hearing us, when in reality we are not hearing God. We may know deep in our hearts, what the right answer is … what the right thing to do is. That still small voice is telling us what we need to know. But, we deny it, turn a deaf ear to it … and continue to complain that we haven’t gotten the answer we want.
We have to realize that often God gives us answers we don’t want or like. There are times in life when we know what the right thing to do is … yet we refuse to do it. God has answered our prayers, but it’s not the answer we want. Instead of hearing God’s answer, we keep asking, “What shall I do, God? What shall I do?” I certainly, at the time, didn’t want to hear that I was perfectly normal as a lesbian. I had no desire to hear God tell me that God loved me and made me just as I am. It took years to realize that God was speaking but simply because I didn’t like the answer, I decided not to listen.
Examine those moments [or years!] where you believe God has been silent. Is God really silent, or are you deaf?
When God is Silent
Don’t get me wrong … sometimes God is silent … deafeningly so.
All the recent changes in my life … from relationships to jobs … left me off balance. I experienced a deep loneliness that I tried to battle with noise. I believed that if I could get the noise level back up I could avoid dealing with the things that were making me lonely. If I could increase the volume of things going on around me … then I wouldn’t have to deal with myself.
It was a good plan, but I had already felt the allure of silence so it wasn’t as easy to turn the noise back on as I thought it would be. Oh, how I tried though. I occupied my thoughts with a million other things to try to avoid my loneliness. I complained bitterly to God about my loneliness. I yelled at God about my loneliness. I pumped up the volume on my life … until it reached a point where I couldn’t take the noise in my head anymore. I had to be still. I went back to the quiet that I had begun to enjoy before. The quiet was comforting … but it was just that … quiet. God was not speaking — at all. I became rather despondent. I had believed Merton. I thought that my silence would be my salvation … that if I could just turn the noise off I could hear God speaking. But when the quiet returned it was deafening. The comfort of the quiet soon departed. My anxiety was on the rise. Why wasn’t God speaking to me now that I had quieted my life?
It took a lot of soul searching and anguish before I realized that by feeling God’s absence I was made more aware of God’s presence in my life. Henri Nouwen explains the concept this way:
“[God’s] presence is so much beyond the human experience of being together that it quite easily is perceived as absence. [God’s] absence, on the other hand, is so often deeply felt that it leads to a new sense of [God’s] presence.”
God was not being silent, or not present, to me out of spite. Instead, God was modeling for me how I should deal with my present condition of loneliness. Instead of running away from my loneliness, instead of increasing the noise in my life to take my mind off being alone, I should embrace my loneliness, and make it my home … my solitude. Instead of searching outside myself for some way to relieve my loneliness, God was showing me that by becoming silent I could transform my loneliness into what Nouwen calls a “fruitful solitude.”
It’s been a hard road to bring that vision to fruition. I’m still very lonely at times, but thanks to the lesson of God’s silence in my life, I have learned how to better handle those times so that I don’t sink into despair. Truly, in these times, my silence has been my salvation.
Silence as Salvation
Instead of worrying about God’s silence, then … maybe we should begin to worry about our own. How noisy is your life? Do you spend time in solitude? How can you hear God speaking if you don’t take time to stop and listen?
Yes, often God is silent. I’ve found that in those moments it is often a companionable silence that I share with God. Instead of feeling like God is absent in times of silence, I revel in feeling what it’s like to just be in God’s presence … God’s silent presence. One of the perks of being in a long-term relationship, back when I was, was the ability to be silent with my partner. There were times when we’d sit in silence, enjoying one another’s company, knowing that we didn’t have to fill the empty air with words to know that we were in a loving presence. That’s how I view my relationship with God now. God’s silence does not perplex me as much as it did. Maybe God is observing the Buddhist axiom of “speak only if you can improve the silence.”
But when God does speak, I need to be ready to hear God. That means my life must be quiet. I must cultivate a “fruitful solitude” so I can hear that “still small voice” above the din of everyday life. As Merton reminds us, God’s life is a speaking … our lives are a listening. In order to hear and act we must be silent. Do not fear silence, neither you own, nor God’s for truly, silence is our salvation.
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.