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After reflecting on solitude, we next move to the topic of Silence in the life of the Desert Fathers. I found myself struggling against the idea of silence and my attitude about it. The Desert Fathers' ideas of silence seem too extreme, too impractical. But after contemplating the many points Nouwen made in this chapter, I am left with the conviction that I need to practice more silence in my life.
In our society, silence has become something uncomfortable, almost to be feared. I remember a co-worker at my first job in high school. She was a few years older than me and a cheerful, chatty person. One day she got upset at something someone said to her and she decided to spend the day in silence. We later talked about this day and she shared how uncomfortable her silence had been. She was stuck with her own thoughts, with no place to hide, no distraction.
Our culture does not see silence as a virtue. "We have become so contaminated by our wordy world that we hold to the deceptive opinion that our words are more important that our silence." We are encouraged to “share” with each other and taught that sharing our feelings, emotions and thoughts is the true virtue.
But our words are actually the easiest way to sin. James 3 described the tongue as a “whole wicked world in itself” and silence as putting a bit into a horse’s mouth. The Fathers believed that “speaking is dangerous and easily leads us away from the right path.” James leaves little doubt that speaking without sinning is very difficult. Proverbs 10:19 states that “a flood of words is never without its faults.”
"...we have become inundated by a torrent of words... [they] have lost their creative power. Their limitless multiplication has made us lose confidence in words and caused us to think... 'They are just words.'"
Nouwen goes on to argue that silence can actually teach us to speak. "A word with power is a word that comes out of silence. A word that bears fruit is a word that emerges from the silence and returns to it." We speak about the events of the world, but how often do we really change them for the better? ... We speak a great deal about God and religion, but how often does it bring us or others real insight? But "a word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver." (Prov 25:11)
As the chapter concludes, Nouwen gives us great perspective on how silence can be applied to our daily lives. "Let us not be too literal about silence. After all, silence of the heart is much more important that silence of the mouth." Abba Poemen said: "A man may seem to be silent, but if his heart is condemning others, he is babbling ceaselessly."
"Love, not silence, is the purpose of the spiritual life and of ministry."
All quotes are from The Way of the Heart, chapter 2 – Silence.