When Silence is Hard


I thought meditation would help me feel peaceful. I did not expect it to bring on a near panic-attack.

I found the book on listening prayer in my church’s library, a slim paperback, a good twenty years old. I was in my last year in college, a year before I realized I was depressed and traumatized from childhood.

The author posed this simple question: What if God could speak to us in prayer?

What if when we talked, talked, talked to Jesus, we never let him get a word in edgewise? Perhaps we could sit in silence and listen instead?

I felt excited by this idea. I had little doubt that listening prayer worked. My sister had been raised mostly in charismatic spaces; I’d learned from books she’d brought home how powerfully, audibly, and viscerally God could work in the world. Surely the Almighty could work in me if I just tried.

I sat eagerly in my desk chair. Sit in silence, the book counseled. Wait for God.

I closed my eyes. My eagerness lasted about two seconds. With my eyes shut, I was alone in the dark. My brain buzzed with thoughts, and then quickly with recriminations. Focus on Jesus, they said. Not on this—whatever this is. Can’t you keep silent for one second? No wonder God isn’t speaking to you. You’re hopeless. Why did you think this would work? You’re too weak, too faithless, too self-absorbed …

The voice began panicking me. I felt my chest grow warm, and then red-hot. I began to pant while the hurricane of thoughts battered me. Finally, I couldn’t bear any more. My eyes flew open, and I violently pushed myself away from my desk. I couldn’t call what I had experienced silence at all.

I felt visceral pain, the cut of rejection and abject failure. I’d allowed hope to flare, then sputter to death like a match in a gust of wind.

I wish I could tell you this was the only time I felt that way about spiritual disciplines. But indeed, year after year for about a decade, I felt something like King Midas in faith, except without the gold. Everything that blessed other people—church, Bible, small groups, Christian books, communion, and now meditation—went lifeless in my hands. Instead of blessing, they brought me shame, doubt, loneliness, and panic.

My best efforts snuffed out my hope and yearning for God again, and again, and again. Every time, I thought, What is wrong with me?

It never occurred to me that silence is hard. Sitting still with your thoughts, especially for anxious, traumatized people, is tremendously difficult. It’s difficult not because we’re weak, or lazy, or spiritually incompetent, but because we’re broken.

In silence, we come face-to-face with pain and shame heaped on us from a broken world. Silence is powerful. It unmasks, exposes, opens. It is a kind of apocalypse. Like any spiritual discipline, it can wound as well as heal if it is not done with grace. It’s far better to set disciplines aside and search for new, easier ones (art, movement, connection to people) than stick with disciplines that cut us.

But oh, healing enough to bear silence is wonderful, friends. Silence is powerful; being able to stand it is a great gift.

A few years ago, well after the decade of Midas-disciplines ended, I sat alone in our church’s chapel, waiting for a meeting to begin. Unbeknownst to me, it had been cancelled. No one was coming.

Sitting in the quiet, I felt a nudge to be quiet on purpose. Recently, I had been experimenting with some short listening prayers. I had managed to become receptive to God’s voice without shaming myself for five minutes at a time. Sometimes, panic surged up, but years of therapy and yoga kept me from getting overwhelmed. I breathed through it, telling myself, You’re safe. You’re not doing anything wrong. Just be. I’d found that feeling the old discomfort no longer sent me bolting from my chair. I felt more resilient, more at ease with myself, more willing to stop judging my experience and competence.

Maybe I could try again now, I thought. I had no place to be. I could try listening prayer for twenty minutes, and if no one showed, I’d leave.

I set a timer on my phone, a little nervous. Twenty minutes was a long time. Would I be able to handle it?

I sat. The air was so still. The silence did not feel oppressive; it felt welcoming, calming, restful, ample. I felt filled with gratitude to be able to sit quietly with God. That’s all I wanted, really—all I’d ever wanted in faith—to be allowed to sit at Jesus’ feet without embarrassing myself. I didn’t need fireworks. I just needed peace in the great quietness of the Divine.

I was not an embarrassment, I realized. I had never been, not once.

Here is the astounding thing about Silence: it is an embarrassment of riches available to us everywhere. It is free; it is simple; it requires so little. If you can bear it, it is the easiest thing in the world. It literally requires us to do nothing.

Doing nothing is hard. It is also the beginning of real trust.

In the chapel, the timer rang. My eyes flew open with surprise. I had been at peace in the silence. I had felt welcome in its embrace. In the very place where I had once felt oppressed, God had met me with open arms.