Noise Pollution and the Sounds of Silence
Many years ago I did a personal prayer retreat at a Catholic monastery in Arizona. I was gone for two days and had my own room for quiet prayer and meditation. As I was praying, feeling I wasn’t hearing anything from God, I noticed a program of events. That evening there was a half hour group meeting in the sanctuary. The name of the event was in Latin, so I didn’t know what it exactly was.
When I arrived, several monks and nuns were seated on a small stage, in a semi-circle. One of the monks, who seemed to be in charge, had a xylophone in front of him. During this half hour, the monk would hit several notes and then people began to pray in unison for a couple of minutes. This was followed by several minutes of silence and then the cycle repeated itself. My hope in going to this spiritual service was to hear from God. But, alas, all I received was the sound of silence.
I was fasting meals except for breakfast, so the next morning I went to the cafeteria salivating and excited to talk with some of the people. Guess what? The whole breakfast was one of silence. Do you know how strange it is to sit at a table with several people and all you do is smile and nod at each other? After breakfast I saw listed on the program, a one hour worship service. I was elated! I know what worship looks like: Singing, shouting and raising of hands; a joyous time to be sure. Au contraire. What I encountered was a one hour version of the xylophone prayers from the night before.
Still contemplating what God was trying to say to me, I asked one of the nuns about the silent breakfast. I told her that I understood the idea of silence in those two meetings, but why at breakfast? Her answer was something I will never forget. “Our culture is one of the noisiest in history”, she said, “We believe being silent when you typically expect conversation, opens up greater possibilities of hearing from the Lord.” So that is what God was saying: Learn to be silent more.
This past week I read the book, 24/6, written by a Tiffany Shlain, internet pioneer and renowned film maker. Shlain, a secular Jew introduces the reader to a strategy for living in our 24/7 world by turning off all screens for 24 hours each week. This practice, which she’s done for nearly a decade with her husband and kids (sixteen and ten), has completely changed their lives, giving them more time, productivity, connection, and presence. She and her family call it “Technology Shabbat.”
She writes, “It’s no surprise that human beings need silence. This is true even on a biological level…. Studies have linked chronic noise to increased rates of heart disease and high blood pressure. A 2011 study conducted by the World Health Organization attributed three thousand heart disease deaths annually to the effect of noise pollution…. Silence, conversely, promotes cell development in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls memory and sensory processing. During silent times, the brain can process its backlog of information. A study led by Duke University…showed that two hours a day of silent time was enough to produce these cognitive benefits.”
Scripture encourages us to be silent as well. Psalm 46:10, “Be silent, and know that I am God.” Psalm 37:7, “Be still in the presence of the Lord, and wait patiently for Him to act.” Lamentations 3:24-25, “The Lord is wonderfully good to those who wait for him and seek him. So it is good to wait quietly for salvation from the Lord.” In chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation, at the end of each discussion regarding the seven churches, we see the phrase, “He who has an ear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church.” You have to be silent to hear what the Spirit is saying.
Over the years I conducted many Contemplative Prayer Retreats in church camps in northern Arizona. My purpose was to teach participants how to “hang out” with God without having an agenda. I provided some guidelines and did a brief teaching on ways that God often speaks to us. People were then released to be alone with God for the rest of the retreat.
At the end of the retreat, I reconvened everyone to process their experiences and to see what God might have said to them. I found it most interesting that first timers said their biggest concern was how they could spend 24 hours with God since their regular quiet prayer time was never more than 10-15 minutes at best. Almost to a person, these rookies concluded that they wished there had been more time to connect with God.
What happened to the people who felt there wasn’t enough time? I believe they had to first detox from the noise built up from our culture. In that process of detoxing, hearing God became easier. The sound of silence was actually the sound of the Lord.
I want to share a couple of ideas that will help you embrace silence as a lifestyle. I recently started turning off the radio in my car while driving. Such an easy thing to do! It has allowed me valuable time with the Lord I didn’t have before. I also spend the first hour of my day in quiet Bible reading and prayer. Hearing from the Lord before I start my day is a discipline that I cherish.
So, I encourage you to start including silence in your life. I promise you won’t be disappointed as you make time for your heavenly Father to speak to you in ways you never imagined. Who knows you might just hear something that we all crave to hear: the voice of God.