We live in a noisy world. A soundtrack of competing commercials and conversations, a cacophony of messages that form and reform our attention and desires. The high velocity noise of the TV, the Internet, and our culture at large always hurtling toward the next big thing. The message in the midst of all the noise: in order to be somebody, one has to be going somewhere. Continual movement—consuming, doing, saying, watching—provides the center of many messages vying for our attention.
In a culture addicted to noise, silence is startling and uncomfortable. Perhaps this is especially true for me because I fall into the millennial generation. Certainly people my age and in my stage of life now expect continual noise and stimulation.
What does Lent mean amidst the noise? Lent is a season of suspense and self-denial, a period of waiting and introspection. The practice of silence can be an active and intentional stillness that refocuses our attention to the cross and the crucified Christ.
Silence and stillness should not be foreign concepts to the church. God speaks to us in the stillness. When sent to Mt Carmel, the prophet Elijah encounters God not in an earthquake, fire, or furious wind, but in a gentle breeze. On Mt Sinai, Moses is removed from his people and only feels the Lord’s presence from a turned back.
To the world silence involves weakness and stillness, capitulation. A silent person, someone refusing to engage in the exchange of noise and ideas, is without a trajectory, seemingly void of power and authority. This is how the Roman authorities perceive the silence of Jesus. In his reply to Pilate, Jesus makes no grand gestures or replies that would befit a king. In the silent presence of Christ, we see that silence is a way the Spirit moves.
The season of Lent works at a different speed– the speed of silence and stillness that brings renewal. It begins on Ash Wednesday with the reminder that we are made from ashes, to ashes we shall return. This emphasis on the fragility of humanity is made clear through the silence of Good Friday, when the movement of Lent seems to have been all for naught. Only in the quiet of Easter morning is the noise of the world overcome, when the silent one who was smothered by those wielding power emerges from the tomb.
During Lent, many Christians spend 40 days abstaining from some habit or willfully refusing some slight indulgence. This often acts as penitence, an acknowledgement that our lives are too cluttered with frivolity and excess. However, too often this period of abstinence becomes little more than a self-improvement regimen. The temptation is to view Lent as a time for physical or cosmetic improvement. One trite example could be the desire many people have to give up sweets for Lent. How does giving up sugar focus our attention to the work of the cross?
This is not meant to be a criticism. Rather, I hope it serves as an encouragement to remember how the habit of silence allows us to respond to the call to love our neighbor. Instead of giving up something tangible or edible, perhaps the church should be encouraged to give up our agency. Silence is not just the practice of being quiet, but also about learning the habits of stillness and attentiveness. Centuries of monastic traditions have built upon and rested in the wisdom of stillness and silence. The wisdom of those who rarely speak seems to cut most deeply. Silence removes us from positions of authority and power and places us in a posture of receptivity. Rarely does one learn something new while speaking. The habits practiced during Lent should seem foolish unless seen through the interpretive lens of the resurrection. Listening, silence and stillness make little sense to a culture of noise, but they are habits that align with the trajectory of Lent. These habits help construct an active love. In Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, Father Zosima admonishes a parishioner to practice active and persevering love that runs counter to the “dream love” of the world. It is only a self-giving love, he argues, that can reveal the greater love of God.
The practice of silence and the willingness to listen helps the self-giving love of Christ to replace the frenetic self-improvement of the world. God does not operate at the speed of DSL, but in the easily ignored gentle whisper. The habits of silence and stillness are an invitation to back away from the noise and chaos that the world praises and into a more attentive and responsive life. Perhaps in this Lenten season our habits can be defined not by what we give up, but what we pay more attention to.
Andy Scott works and lives in Durham, NC, with his wife, Annie and daughter, Miriam. He dislikes summing up his life in two sentences, as it seems to do more harm than good.