Silence as Conversion

I have gone back to Henri Nouwen’s book, The Way of the Heart, his reflection on how the sayings and stories of the Desert Fathers can inform ministry in our day (and any day). What struck me was his notion that silence is not usually what we think of. We think of silence as an opportunity to have ‘me’ time or to have our ‘privacy.’

Silence from the desert perspective is not to have a quiet moment for ‘getting away from it all.’ Desert silence is going in your cell to be mortified; to be purged; to be converted. It is to leave the world, face the Devil and one’s own disordered passions. It is to stand in God’s presence, with all that we are and all that we are not laid before him. To stand before him to whom all hearts are open, all desires known and to whom no secrets are hid.

Indeed, the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before Him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

2 thoughts on “Silence as Conversion

  1. It’s funny that you should quote part of the prayer that used to open Episcopal services. After I pray “O heavebly King” three times at the beginning of my personal prayer time, I next pray that prayer, “…and from Whom no secrets are hid, cleanse the thoughts of our hearts…” Both prayers seem to be saying the same sorts of things.

    As to silence, I remember reading somewhere that D. L. Moody once said, “Make a man, any man, sit still and quiet for even 5 minutes, and God can make a Christian out of him,” or something much like that. I don’t think Moody was necessarily being literal, unless the man he wants to sit quiet is someone who already knows the chief tenets of Christianity and has just been nominal. Maybe forcing such a one to sit still for (if not 5 minutes, then maybe) a couple of days, might make a Christian out of him.

    The point I think that Moody and the Desert Fathers are both making is that we need silence or quiet, and lots of it, to get us where we can face ourselves and know in Whose presence we have been living as we have.

    To anyone who has a regular (that is, consistent, every day) prayer life, and I’m not talking about following a prayer rule where you say the prescribed written prayers of the Church, meditate for 2 minutes, then snuff your icon candle and walk out, but those who (prescribed prayers or not) actually pray, that is, put themselves before the Lord in quietness and submission, for hours sometimes, seeking to know Him and worship Him in spirit and truth, to those the purpose and value of silence is well-understood, it’s a given.

    Actually, I’ve never heard of silence or quiet being considered “me” time or “privacy”, or anything but that, “going into your cell to be mortified; to be purged; to be converted.” Moody was right, if he did say that, and so were the Desert Fathers.

    If people didn’t instictively know that silence was thus dangerous to their carnal selves, they wouldn’t avoid it as they do, using every excuse they can think of.

  2. Another nice subject, Neo. The fact that the Muslim prayer discipline of communal and prescribed prayer times actually was adopted from the early Christians is central here. Screwtape is very attentive to keeping us busy and covering the silence with damn near everything. Practicing the presence of God needs space and time: a space to pray, set apart, and a time that is inviolate. Not particularly good at moderation, I am heavily drawn to monastic prayer and silence, but since I’m also ADD, I get so wrapped up in life that I forget about this attraction for years at a time.

    Silence. Hmmm. Nice.

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