Some Thoughts on Silence and Solitude in Spirituality
In recent times, it seems like I’ve heard a lot about spirituality that emphasizes silence, solitude, and contemplation. Usually, medieval monks and some modern Catholics are quoted to emphasize the importance of these disciplines in the Christian life. Now, to put my cards on the table, such talk has made me uncomfortable for several reasons.
First, it doesn’t seem like those are the things emphasized about the Christian life in Scripture. The Pauline epistles seem to emphasize just about everything but silence and solitude (I’ll come back to contemplation, as part of that depends on what we mean by it). Instead, I’ve seen a focus on Scripture, the community of saints, service, putting off sin, putting on righteousness (I think of Colossians 3 in particular).
Secondly, I have a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to using material from the monastic movement (more on that below).
Thirdly, it seems to me that the Scriptures used to support this kind of spirituality are not being interpreted or applied particularly well. E.g., “be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10) seems to me to have little to do with silence and solitude, but rather with the resting that our hearts have in knowing who God is and what he has done.
Biblical spirituality is not about contemplation; it is about reading and meditating on the word of God. It is not about detached silence; it is about passionate petition. It is not about solitude; it is about participation in community. In other words, biblical spirituality reflects the dual fidelity we have argued for throughout the book. It is centered on the gospel and rooted in the context of the Christian community. (p. 141)
The authors take a little bit of time in the book to back up these ideas, particularly emphasizing Paul’s epistles. All I can say is, I think they’re absolutely right. Now, of course, I’m not saying that one never needs to be alone or quiet. If you’re an introvert, you probably do. But to put that as an essential part of the disciplines of the Christian life, as necessary for spiritual growth, seems out of sync with the biblical portrayal of what is necessary for growth.
One other note on that quote: the authors seem to be making a distinction between “contemplation” and “meditation.” There may be such a distinction, as some do mean by the former an emptying of the mind. But I’m not convinced that all people who use that word use it in that way. If one is contemplating Scripture, one is meditating. But whatever word we use, I think their point that meditating on Scripture, not emptying one’s mind is what Scripture calls us to.
It has become common to hear similar claims within evangelicalism. Evangelicals with their emphasis on the gospel are good at bringing people into the church, people say, but to nurture and sustain faith we need to look to other traditions–traditions offering more advanced spiritualities. We need, it is variously claimed, spiritual disciplines or mystical encounters or contemplative retreats or so called ‘warfare prayer. (p. 144)
The authors make this point even harder from Colossians 2, comparing “contemplative spirituality” to the extra, Gnostic knowledge that the false teachers of Colosse were pushing. Whether all such spirituality today is equivalent to that may be questionable, but I think their point stands. Why, when the New Testament seems rather clear about what is necessary for spiritual growth, do we find the need to import some rituals and retreats from monasticism?
Biblical spirituality is not a spirituality of silence; it is a spirituality of passionate petition. (p. 147)
Again, I couldn’t help but just resonate with this. It seems that the New Testament portrays biblical spirituality as threefold: hearing from God (through his word), responding to God in praise and prayer, and doing all of this in the context of the believing community. I just don’t see simple silence presented as an essential spoke in the wheel of the Christian life.
When the psalmists do talk of stilling our hearts, it is not the stillness of silence but the stilling of self-justification or self-confidence (Psalm 46; 62; 131). (p. 148)
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the Psalms used to support the idea of silence. But frankly, I find that to be a simplistic and shoddy reading of those texts. The point seems to be reliance on the Lord, not the absence of sound.
It isn’t hard to tell that I’ve developed some opinions about this. Now what I don’t want to say is that you should never be silent or go on a retreat. And I somewhat doubt that Chester and Timmis are saying that either. But it seems like it’s been fashionable of late to put those things forward as the key to unlocking a fuller spiritual life. And that seems dangerously close to putting in human traditions instead of the teaching of Scripture.