Photos by Peter Szarmach. To see more of Peter’s work, go to www.composingbeauty.com
From “Spiritual Practices – Living the Gift,” the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of Reflections magazine. To read the entire issue, click here.
The 14th century Sufi poet and mystic, Rumi, wrote, “Return to the root of the root of yourself.” His words remind me that I often live on the periphery or circumference of life, disconnected from the root of my being and existence.
To “return to the root of the root” of myself means returning to myself, becoming more fully human, and entering the deep heart. Ultimately, though, it means returning to God.
For me that returning necessarily involves intentional silence. Silence is more than the cessation of talking or the absence of sound. We’ve all experienced times when we were not talking and the world around us was quiet, but the world within us was filled with noise and voices that just would not be quiet. The real work and practice of silence is within us.
Three or four times each year I go to Lebh Shomea House of Prayer for extended periods of silence and solitude, a few days to a week at a time. Lebh Shomea is in south Texas near Sarita. The community lives in silence. Each guest lives alone in what the desert fathers and mothers would call a cell. It is a small individual dwelling with a bed, a desk, a bathroom, and a prayer room. The community gathers for Eucharist each morning. Meals are eaten together in silence. That’s it. There are no programs, no scheduled activities, no escape from the silence and solitude.
Exterior silence is not, however, the goal. God is always the goal. The exterior silence is a necessary means to interior silence, but it is the inner silence that gives meaning and content to the outer silence; otherwise it’s just escape, running away, isolation, the absence of sound.
True silence is not escape but engagement, not emptiness but fullness, not absence but presence. It is a way of showing up and being present to God, others, myself, life, and the world. Mindful of the psalmists words, “For God alone my soul in silence waits” (62:1, 6), I surround myself with silence in an attempt to fill myself with silence.
Waiting in silence is not necessarily easy or comfortable. The silence strips away busyness, distractions, and entertainment. You are confronted with yourself – your thoughts, voices, temptations, fantasies, all that you are and all that you are not. In this regard the practice of silence becomes an act of repentance, turning around and going in a different direction.
Silence invites me to repent from the need to justify, explain, and defend; from the need to be recognized, heard, and approved of; from the need to be accomplished, efficient, and productive. Silence asks me to learn to gracefully do nothing. It reveals that I am “un-selfsufficient.” That doesn’t mean that I am deficient, but that my sufficiency is not found within myself but in God, the one who created me in his own image and likeness.
The Christian tradition holds silence as an essential practice for anyone who wants to grow spiritually. Elijah found God in “a sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12). Jesus, the gospel writers tell us, often went off to be by himself, to lonely and deserted places, to pray (for example, Mark 1:35).
So where does one start with the practice of silence? The specifics of silence will be different for each of us, dependent on our life’s circumstances. We all, however, start the same. A saying from the Egyptian Fathers offers a simple and direct answer:
“You need a spiritual pilgrimage;
begin by closing your mouth.”
The Rev. Michael Marsh is rector of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Uvalde TX. Reach him at
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