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Sitting in Silence

Sitting in Silence


A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him, I may think aloud. 

–Ralph Waldo Emerson

Another day of 115 degrees in our part of Arizona.  Another day of staying at home, seeming to spend most of my speaking time practicing the particular dialect of cat that my fur-kids continually pour in my ear. Another day of munching on peanuts and drinking iced tea. I’ve about Midsomer Murder-ed out, and ambulance programs from around the world as well as programs about how some planes crashed. I’ve noticed there are far fewer programs on TV that interest me than there are programs. But that’s life in the pandemic zone, I guess.

I was thinking today of how life used to be. Admittedly there used to be fewer parking places at malls and stores, as well as churches, schools, movie theaters, restaurants, and lots of other sites (ok, sports stadia, golf courses, exercise gyms, and museums). Things are starting to pick up a little, but the danger isn’t over. I’m sure I overthink my own health, not to mention the health of others with whom I have to come in accidental contact to risk giving (or getting) a nose full of ugly little viruses that might do me (or someone else) in. Life was more fun before all this stuff currently going on. It was a bit more exciting, educational, entertaining, and a lot less tedious. But, with God’s help, those days may come again, 

One thing I really miss is friends. Oh, granted, I can still pick up a phone and talk to them, and these days I don’t have to worry about who else on our party line is listening. Oh, wait, maybe someone I don’t know IS listening, but I’d rather not think about that. Talking on the phone, or by text, email, or even by letter (if God grants that we will still have a post office to carry our mail back and forth), is nice, but it’s not like having a live person in the same room, feet propped up on a hassock, sipping tea, munching on cookies or pizza, and talking about any- and everything from the state of the world to what is on sale at the big box store this week. Sometimes the very best times of all is having the friend described above sitting in the same room, etc., and neither of us saying anything at all. That is really the mark of real and loving friendship, the kind when we could talk about trivia, but instead, simply sit in companionable silence.

So many people have trouble sitting in silence, doing nothing, saying nothing, even thinking nothing. We’ve gotten used to soundbites, videos, movies, comedies, dramas, or watching who comes and goes down the street. Books with audio versions are taking the place of substantial, calfskin- or paperbound books. I confess, I love my Kindle without sound, which lets my mind’s voice set the stage and direct the action.

I think back to ancient nights, millennia ago, where villages and tribes sat around campfires and listened to elders tell stories of the ancestors, stories that those who heard were supposed to pay attention to and remember so they could pass them on to their progeny. One of the main parts of religious life in monasteries and convents was the balance between work and silence, reading, chanting, and prayer. During meals, one person would read from scripture or some religious volume, and the others contemplated what they heard as they ate their simple meals. In chapel, there were periods of prayer but also periods of silence which had the intent of listening to God, Jesus, the Spirit, or saints, or contemplating something they had heard or read themselves. In a way, it was a method of sitting in silence as with a beloved and close friend, one where words were not necessary but would be welcomed, heard, and contemplated in turn. 

Emerson, like many many of his time, considered that men were suitable for friendship but that women were worthy of taking orders, overseeing or doing the housework, and only really speaking when absolutely necessary.  Despite the passage of decades, centuries, and even millennia, some still believe that this is the true and right course. Yet those who are real friends, no matter their social, cultural, economic or gender status, or even widely divergent in age, can enjoy sitting quietly or sharing their deep thoughts without fear of ridicule, dismissal, or fear. 

We often hear that we should sit quietly in prayer to God daily, not merely presenting our petitions, thanksgivings, or whatever, but simply sit with open minds, still hands and feet, and just listen for what God may wish to tell us. I remember the first time I tried centering prayer. The instructions were to sit quietly, without thinking of anything, and, should any thought appear, simply note that it appeared and then dismiss it and return to the empty mind again.  It was hard because my mind was so used to taking control of silence, but gradually I found it got easier. I can’t say I can do that for long periods of time, but I know the more I practice it, I can increase the stillness of mind for longer and longer. I look at it as a way of physically doing what Emerson encouraged, and, furthermore, what saints, prophets, and deities have helped us to do since time immemorial. 

God, Jesus, and the Spirit are supposed to be our good friends and guides. What better way to recognize this and encourage listening for messages from them than to patiently wait in silence? Now, in this time of isolation, perhaps we can make friends with silence – and with God – by using the exercise of sitting silently and patiently. I know I can do that, and then go back to my reading, knitting, or whatever. 

God bless.


Image: Woman and Child (Silence), by Jean-Francois Millet (1855), from the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.  Found at Wikimedia Commons. 


Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter.



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