Concerning Stillness, Songs, and Soul Friends

Photo by Fran McColman

Photo by Fran McColman

A reader writes:

Carl, when you are sufficiently silent with the “waters stilled” how do you experience revelation. I suppose a better question would be what is your experience “there” like? Does God float into view … or does God whisper … ?? Or do you find a path to look inwardly in order to find answers, results, etc. I guess that one overarching question here would be “Do you have a purpose or question in mind before you start out?”

I believe radically that “silence is praise” (Psalm 65:1, translated literally), and “for God my soul in silence waits” (Psalm 62:1) — so for me, any kind of purpose or question would just be more noise in the silence. I’m afraid I’m not one for anthropomorphic experiences of God, so no floating or whispering in my experience. How, then, do I hear the voice of God? I take my cue from Julian of Norwich: “For the fullness of joy is to behold God in all.” I believe a daily contemplative practice can help us to discern the leading of the Holy Spirit in our lives, but it may come from almost any possible source: insight from a conversation with a loved one, a song lyric, a meaningful passage in a book. As I see it, the Holy Spirit uses these mundane and random elements in our lives to speak to us. So our job is to listen — and to behold. And a daily practice of radical silence, again, with no purpose or desire other than to be still and know God, is training to help us grow in our attentiveness to the subtle movements of the Spirit in our lives.

My friend goes on to say:

Many months ago you recommended that I seek out a spiritual counselor here locally. I found several leads online and plan to finally make contact. Thanks for that direction. Perhaps the answers to my questions are so personal and individualized that I will need to address all of them with my spiritual director, when she/he and I have chosen one another.

Glad to hear this. The dance of intimacy with God is so unique and personal that no book (or blogger) can ever fully address our unique gifts, needs, hopes and challenges. Having a friend, mentor, director or companion who is herself or himself a person of prayer is so invaluable. Good for you for pursuing this.

Finally …. how about songs. You mention the breathing silence (I was taught this technique when I once dabbled in a variant of Hindu meditation/devotion in my “earlier days”). But later, when in mental and spiritual crisis I found that some of the songs I had learned in church as a youth helped me “find my way back”. Can passages of music serve the same purpose as the centering prayer or the Jesus prayer?

Of course. This points to the power of Gregorian Chant (or any kind of chant) as a tool for contemplative practice. As St. Augustine says, “The person who sings, prays twice.” So exult in the music that you have found meaningful. My only bit of unasked-for advice: don’t let your love for music become a way to avoid silence. Try to find a balance between the silence and the song. Let both nurture your ongoing journey.

Thanks for writing, and many blessings to you (and to all who read this). If anyone else has a question regarding the contemplative life, visit where you will find a form for sending in your comments or questions.

Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Catholic Meditation and Contemplative Prayer: What's the Difference?
Talking about "Befriending Silence"
Pentecost and Ecstasy
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • themysticmom

    This was a great reminder for me. It doesn’t take long for me, it seems, to stray from experiencing God in the ordinary to demanding from God the extraordinary. I appreciate this tug at my roots, back to the stillness, back to the quiet, back to the startlingly humble, ordinariness of our God. It never takes long to find him there, once I stop to look and listen. Thanks for this!

  • Ken Gilbert

    Carl, as a newbie to contemplation, I find that practical insights from more “experienced” contemplatives are extremely helpful. It seems like I only find what I am told to look for. For example, “seeing God in all things” is something that was more or less happening for me, but hearing if from others helps me know I am on the right track. I value your insights and comments because they are generally more understandable to me than “professional” comments from folks like Keating and Merton. I have finished reading “Answering the Contemplative Call” and am reading it a second time. God has given you a gift of communication, and I am glad I stumbled across your writings. Please keep writing and know that you are loved and valued by many, me for sure. Ken Gilbert (KudzuKen in Mississippi)

  • Bill

    don’t let your love for music become a way to avoid silence

    This is a challenge for me. I always seem to have a song “stuck in my head.” It seems that no matter how much silence I otherwise achieve (even otherwise quieting my thoughts), there is always imaginary music in the background of my mind. Even now as I type this in an otherwise quiet room there is a song playing in my head. I’m assuming that with more time in the discipline this can be overcome, but I’m wondering if it is a common experience