You might be able to guess the answer that tops the list. When I ask seminary students or church small groups what is most difficult about the practice of silence, about resting with God in prayerful stillness, the same answer always gets the most votes: distractions.
There is an irony about this answer during the season of Advent—the season that offers us the opportunity to prepare to celebrate the “silent night, holy night” when Christ was born, the season in which finding a sabbath of silence might be most important. If we search for silence in Advent, it proves elusive.
On the Saturday before Advent began, my family decorated our home. Anne Murray’s Christmas album, the requisite album to accompany our festivities, blared from the next room. The puppy, banished from the scene so he couldn’t wreak his havoc yet, barked from the kitchen. One son sat on the couch with three stuffed animals pretending they were carolers, belting out “Frosty the Snowman.” The two other children wrangled with each other about where to put the ornaments. And I wanted to hide in the basement from the noise.
The scene was a microcosm of what Advent has become: constant busyness and noise.
But when those students and small-group participants give the answer “distractions,” they are not really talking about the noise around us. Yes, sometimes that’s a challenge. Finding a quiet spot is important, sometimes difficult, but ultimately possible with a little forethought. What they are talking about are the inner distractions—the blaring, barking, belting, and wrangling that goes on in our minds.
When we finally quell the outer noise, the inner bustle begins. And so we flee the silence we have found. After all, who of us wants to listen to the noise in our own souls?
I call this the paradox of silence: we want silence, and we flee from it because we fear what we might discover about ourselves in the silence (for more on this, see the chapter in my book What We Need Is Here on the practice of silence).
I don’t know anyone who has described this paradox more clearly than Henri Nouwen in his book Making All Things New: “As soon as we are alone, without people to talk with, books to read, TV to watch, or phone calls to make, an inner chaos opens up in us. This chaos can be so disturbing and so confusing that we can hardly wait to get busy again. … When we have removed our outer distractions, we often find that our inner distractions manifest themselves to us in full force.”
If that describes you (and it describes most of us), I suggest letting this season of Advent become a time of noticing. Rather than making bold but unrealistic goals about how you are going to find silence amid the bustle, ask yourself:
- How am I using the noise of the season to distract myself from my inner chaos?
- Am I tuning in to the all-Christmas-all-the-time radio station to avoid the loneliness or grief I feel at this time of the year?
- Are there small pockets of quiet available to me when it might feel safe to listen to the inner noise of my life without fear?
Resting with God in silence is difficult, not only because of the noise around us, but more, because of the noise inside us. And yet only when we find the courage and take the time to allow ourselves to recognize the inner noise and not hide from it, can we discover a deeper truth still: God is with me in the silence and in the chaos, in peace and in the anxiety.
A truth we discover swaddled amid the bustle of a busy manger.
L. Roger Owens is associate professor of leadership and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He is the author of What We Need Is Here and Abba, Give Me a Word: The Path of Spiritual Direction.