On the Importance of Silence

“For language to have meaning, there must be intervals of silence somewhere, to divide word from word and utterance from utterance. He who retires into silence does not necessarily hate language. Perhaps it is love and respect for language which imposes silence upon him. For the mercy of God is not heard in words unless it is heard, both before and after the words are spoken, in silence,”

—Thomas Merton


Silence is simultaneously central to the human experience, and pushed to the periphery of human lives. Silence is human, humane, and humanizing. Language is central to the human experience as well, but unlike silence, it is front and center, on the stage; language is constantly insisting upon itself. Most of our life will be mediated through language. Language is culture. Language is power. Language is imagination. Which means that language is both freedom and captivity, hope and despair, love and hate, heaven and hell.

The meaning of language, the postmodern linguists tell us, lies not in the words themselves but in the act of interpretation. For interpretation to occur with any semblance of wisdom or maturity silence is necessary. “There must be intervals of silence somewhere,” Merton says, if language is every going to convey to us the deep wisdom of our lives.  Merton insists, “… it is love and respect for language which imposes silence…” We have no silence. Is it any wonder we struggle for meaning?

I am learning the deep wisdom of silence these days. I am constantly surprised by the intensity of just a few minutes of silent prayer and the impact it can have upon my personality and my life.

If it is from God, then the input we receive about who we are, what is important to our lives, what it means to be a human being in the world, and what it means to live a good life, will usually come to us in silence and solitude; if not from silence and solitude, then through scripture, meditation, study, conversation, service, contemplation, and other more active forms of prayer. But most of the input we receive about our identity and our lives does not come from God, because we don’t do silence and solitude (nor do we do much in terms of scripture, meditation, study, conversation, service, contemplation, or prayer). Instead we do language, constantly, and image, and useless, repetitive vacillations between reprocessing the past and dreaming of the future.

We are constantly collecting data, hearing and assimilating stories about what it means to live a good life. But because we have not practiced hearing the voice of God, we do not recognize God when he shows up, usually disguised as a normal everyday event from our lives. “My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus taught, “I know them, and they follow me.” I can hardly think of a single saying of Jesus that should cause more tension for most of us than this simple statement. How hard it is to be a part of that in the midst of a culture that demands our immediate attention and response. How difficult it is to connect to the divine in the midst of so much clamor and noise. How impossible that will be for most of us unless we turn everything of and sit in the dark for fifteen minutes a couple of times a day, straining to quiet the mind and listen to the voice of God.

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