November 30, 2020

Fridays with Michael Spencer: 3/17/17

May Iris 2016

From a 2009 post by Michael Spencer

The following is from a 2008 interview with Richard Foster:

What is the discipline that you think we need to be exploring more at this point?

Solitude. It is the most foundational of the disciplines of abstinence, the via negativa. The evangelical passion for engagement with the world is good. But as Thomas à Kempis says, the only person who’s safe to travel is the person who’s free to stay at home. And Pascal said that we would solve the world’s problems if we just learned to sit in our room alone. Solitude is essential for right engagement.

I so appreciated in Bonhoeffer’s Life Together the chapter, “The Day Alone,” and the next chapter, “The Day Together.” You can’t be with people in a right way without being alone. And of course, you can’t be alone unless you’ve learned to be with people. Solitude teaches us to live in the presence of God so that we can be with people in a way that helps them and does not manipulate them.

Another thing we learn in solitude is to love the ways of God; we learn the cosmic patience of God. There’s the passage in Isaiah in which God says, “Your ways are not my ways,” and then goes on to describe how God’s ways are like the rain that comes down and waters the earth. Rain comes down and just disappears, and then up comes the life. It’s that type of patience.

In solitude, I learn to unhook myself from the compulsion to climb and push and shove. When I was pastoring that little church, I’d go off for some solitude and worry about what was happening to people and how they’re doing and whether they would get along without me. And of course, the great fear is that they’ll get along quite well without you! But you learn that’s okay. And that God’s in charge of that. You learn that he’s got the whole world in his hands.

Silence and solitude played a large part in my conversion. I wanted to play church basketball as a teenager, and to be on the team you had to do a “vigil,” which was 2 hours alone with a Bible and a lot of questions. It was one of the first times in my life I really sensed the presence of the living God speaking to and seeking after me.

I took a retreat at Merton’s monastery back in the 1980’s, when guests stayed in the old dormitory. The silence was thick. It wrapped around me and even though I was in a big room, I was intimidated. The silence the rest of the time was manageable, but that night silence was alive, big, ubiquitous.

This past year, my sabbatical gave me a lots of solitude and silence, and I wasn’t ready for it. I planned a week at St. Meinrad, and left after three days. The silence was driving me crazy. I traded it for the silence of the Brescia College library. More manageable for me.

In sabbatical orientation we talked about silence. They said don’t be afraid to sleep. Lots. That was good silence. I tend to forget that, and like too many adults, I get too little sleep. I should be asleep now.

My community is almost never silent, and when we are, we aren’t listening for God as much as we are listening for the next bit of trouble to break out. To really be silent, you have to stop listening. Go beneath the water and let the world above go on without you.

You aren’t silent to be pointed out as someone being silent. No, you are silent to pray. To hear. To hear the nothing that is the world in the presence of God, who is a crashing, blasting, exploding silence.

We’re a distracted world, piping in the noise any way we can. We now have devices that enable endless talking. We are in one another’s presence, but we can’t talk because we can’t be quiet. We have to talk into devices and listen to devices. Even at a seminar or prayer or a silent retreat.

Tell people they can’t have their talking gadgets and watch their faces.

This is one reason I’ve started playing chess again. It’s a game that values silence. It’s little noises are imperceptible to most people. Sighs. Clinking chessmen. Near silence, with movement only permitted in a complete respect for the game.

This is what prayer should be like. A canvas of silence, and on it we paint sparely, with few words and sounds. Our presence in His presence is noisy. His silence is absolute resolution to all our cacophony.

We gave up the tv. There won’t be silence, but there will be more silence of a kind. Less noise. More room to breath, sleep, read, pray, listen to the quiet.

Silence is no sacrament, no theological thing, no Protestant-Catholic thing. It is simply a good thing. A gift of immediacy; an invitation to the gifts that are as close as a heartbeat.

Lewis has Screwtape say that heaven is music, but hell is noise. Music has its pregnant, wondrous silences. Noise has nothing, but disturbs everything.

Silence is, in these times, incredibly cheap. Purchase some. Spend it wisely. Do something wonderful with it. Learn to be comfortable in it, rather than to run from it. Look into the silence, and see who is there, and how long he has been waiting.


  1. Klasie Kraalogies says

    Best place for solitude – working in the garden. I have done a lot of my thinking while planting or pulling weeds or pruning. Also, you are guaranteed teenage children won’t come close to you… 😉

    • I had a big garden when my children were preschool age. They actually did help me with it, and when they took their nap, I would spend lots of time pulling weeds. Very salubrious.


    • Ronald Avra says

      Plants are one of my persistent diversions; they have a life of their own and most of them, not all, are in no great hurry to live it.

  2. after the snow falls
    before any plows arrive
    the cold white silence

  3. Burro [Mule] says

    In college, I wandered into one of those sensory deprivation rooms in the psych department and pulled the door shut behind me. Total darkness and total silence. I don’t know how long it took me to find the door, but by the time I did, my brain was pumping out its own visual patterns and audio track. It was not a pleasant experience.

    Maybe not total silence, but just natural sounds.

  4. I love reading Michael Spencer.

  5. It’s difficult to find silence without solitude. And as a husband, father and person with a demanding job, those moments of planned solitude carry the guilt of self-indulgence. And yet, as an introvert, it’s how I re-charge.

    Not an easy balance.

    • I hear your pain. I’m much the same. When my wife and I swapped “careers” (I became the stay-at-home, she went back to her career), my stress level dropped dramatically mainly because I didn’t have to come home from a long day and figure out how to re-charge. I’m pretty sure I had some ugly moments after we adopted our daughter and I still worked.

      (Stay-at-homes have their own stresses, by the way, but finding “alone time” tends not to be one of them.)

  6. “We learn the cosmic patience of God” — that’s brilliant and painfully obvious all at the same time.

    “Solitude teaches us to live in the presence of God so that we can be with people in a way that helps them and does not manipulate them.” Exactly.

    Lent. The Lutheran church we worship at, does mid-week Lent services in the morning and evening. This year it’s all about silence, meditation, and there’s candles to light with our prayers, and chants…it’s based on the Taize method she said. Love it this year, even more than the past years. The focus each week is on brokenness: broken hearts, broken trust, broken vessel, broken justice, broken bread. We come in silence, we leave in silence. There is a woman who attends who has severe Parkinson’s disease–and her movements and holding the paper are quite loud in this time of silence, and instead of being a distraction to me, it’s such a reminder of all our brokenness, no matter what that means for us as individuals. Her’s is physical and outward and obvious, mine (and others) is inward and hidden.

    Remind me, dear Lord, that I can walk boldly before the throne of grace and receive mercy and grace from You; and may I freely give that mercy and grace, in some small way, to those around me who need it, too.

    I believe that if the Church had more silence, it would be deafening…and the world would, perhaps, pay attention to what we have to say, when we would say something. Now, we’re just another noisy, clanging cymbal amongst others.

    Love reading Michael Spencer. He got it even so long ago. Thank you for his Friday posts.

    • Christiane says

      ““We learn the cosmic patience of God” — that’s brilliant and painfully obvious all at the same time.”

      reminds me of this observation:
      ““Who owns Cross Creek? The red-birds, I think, more than I, for they will have their nests even in the face of delinquent mortgages..It seems to me that the earth may be borrowed, but not bought. It may be used, but not owned. It gives itself in response to love and tending, offers its sesonal flowering and fruiting. But we are tenants and not possessors, lovers, and not masters. Cross Creek belongs to the wind and the rain, to the sun and the seasons, to the cosmic secrecy of seed, and beyond all, to time…”
      ” ( Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Cross Creek )

  7. I’m reminded, forcefully, of how very different my life is now, with 97% of my time spent alone (I went through my appointment calendar and added it up). Solitude and silence are my life. Where two or three are gathered… pretty much never happens. Is the Lord there, in that 97%?

    This is not uncommon: eventually the survivors end up alone with their grief and their memories. Touching the grieving can be tricky, if only because most of us have no idea what to say or how to be compassionate, so we do and say stupid and sometimes hurtful things.

    At a recent memorial service, I told the surviving spouse that, after all those folks have gone home, she should look me up. We’ll have tea and be quiet together. She did it, bless her, and we sit together sometimes. It is something nobody did for me. I believe it was Dorothy Day who said that Christ has no hands in this world but yours. It’s so easy, when things get very rough, to slip through the hands of Christ into solitude and silence.

  8. Christiane says

    “No, you are silent to pray. To hear. To hear the nothing that is the world in the presence of God, who is a crashing, blasting, exploding silence.”

    ‘Only in silence the Word’
    (Ursula Le Guin)

  9. Solitude. Finally, finally, a word that applies to me and the world I inhabit.

    This morning while cooking breakfast it came to me that when others of a “progressive” bent get bent out of shape, angry, fearful, in turmoil, they look for something outside themselves that seems wrong and needs fixing. When I get bent out of shape, angry, fearful, in turmoil, I look for something inside myself that seems wrong and needs fixing. This is relevant as the season to resume weekly Quaker meetings approaches, and last season ended shortly after the election, with others bent out of shape, angry, fearful, and in turmoil. These meetings up until then had been pleasant sessions of restorative silent contemplation that fed my soul. It remains to be seen whether anyone notifies me when and if they start again, and I admit to anxiety and trepidation either way. As often, I ask what’s wrong with this picture.

    • Christiane says

      I should be very very disappointed if in Quaker meeting, people didn’t rise to speak against the evil. Trump can only operate in power as long as people look away and keep silent. Sooner or later, they must speak, or find themselves morally bankrupt.

      help for famine victims? meals-on-wheels? after-school children’s programs?

      loading up the rich with more tax breaks: must it be done on the backs of the most vulnerable ????

      Yeah, Quaker meeting understands:
      ‘Only in the silence the Word’

      A lot of Trump voters are getting very upset if they are confronted with what is going on, but an awful lot more people don’t care anymore if the Trump voters are miffed. Dear God: let the mice roar!