Spirit, think through me till Your ideas are my
IT IS NOT
USUALLY IN THE NOISY PLACES of the world that Christ is best
known. To know Him deeply has always required a degree of
seclusion. The more aware we are of the Lord’s presence, the
less we need to say. Certainly, as we came to the far end of
the first stretch of our walk beside the river, the beauty
of our surroundings was enough to make us quiet and
A novice nun defined contemplation as looking at the Lord
and loving Him. Her friend, more experienced in the ways of
God, replied that it is even more about letting the Lord
look at us and speak to us. When we love someone deeply, we
do not always need to be busy doing things together. After
fifteen years of marriage, Rosalind and I do not need to
cast around in search of inspiration for conversation; we
are happy just to be together. It should be the same in our
relationship with the Lord. It is a sign of maturity when we
can hold intimate silence together, not just in one’s and
two’s but as a church.
Our whole way of living in the twentieth century conspires
to keep us from experiencing true silence. We cannot even go
shopping without being bombarded by music that is designed
to put us in a purchasing mood. Yet many Christians have
followed society in becoming far too dependent on background
noise. Perhaps this is because it disguises the subconscious
fear that if we take time to explore this silence we might
either come to enjoy it too much (and become thoroughly
lazy) or, more probably, find ourselves bored out of our
then is the difference between the loneliness that
and the solitude and the silence which I am
Perhaps we can
put it this way: a greater measure of silence and solitude
will not automatically help us to draw us closer to the
Lord, but its absence will undoubtedly impoverish us. There
is a type of solitude which is so rich in the presence of
the Lord that it completely overcomes the fear of
loneliness. Whether we experience solitude by our own choice
or because it is forced on us, the best way to use these
times is to practise coming into the presence of God until
we feel at home there.
Once, at a conference, I suggested that we hold silence
together during a meal. I can hardly say that people burst
into visions of glory (especially when they were making
ludicrous signs to each other to pass the salt!) but the
underlying peace it brought cleared our minds and prepared
us to do serious work in the evening meeting.
Silence is such an alien concept for most people that we
need help in exploring it. It is good to introduce extended
times of silence into our services and meetings. The more we
persevere (and experiment) the more we will discover an
inner world that contains just as many peaks and troughs,
triumphs and defeats as our more conventional spheres of
true that the voice of God, having once fully
penetrated the heart,
becomes strong as the tempest and loud as the
but before reaching the heart
it is as weak as a light breath which scarcely
agitates the air.
It shrinks from noise, and is silent amid agitation.
(Ignatius of Loyola)
speaking, we can make a distinction between attentive
silence (which is the threshold into true perception) and
inattentive daydreaming – which may be little more than an
excuse for indulging in all manner of idle fancies.
At its fullest, silence will help us to discover a deep soul
peace, which subdues our striving, lifts us above our
everyday preoccupations, and renders us more receptive to
the gentle whispers of God’s counsel. Such experiences may
be fleeting, but the reassurance the Lord brings through
them makes a deep impact on our lives.
There can be no short cuts to this life of intimacy. Pascal
wrote, ‘Earthly things have to be known in order to be
loved; heavenly things have to be loved in order to be
known.’ As we make the effort to slow down our outward life,
new depths of insight and creativity await us. But first we
have to overcome the jingle-jangle of a stress-clogged brain
and persevere through what I call ‘The Five Minute Barrier’.
Some of the wandering thoughts that assail us during this
initial attempt to enter silence may actually serve a useful
to jot down the more useful ideas that bombard our
mind. This will keep us from spending the rest of
our quiet time worrying that we will forget to make
a certain phone call or to get on with some
We should not be
surprised if we find all manner of painful hurts and
unhelpful desires rising from our subconscious depths. This
may be the moment when we realize that we are moving from
the River of Delights to the Ascent of Toil. It is a great
mistake if we give up because the going is getting tough.
The wayward emotions that rage in our soul are like the
timbers of a leaky hull, which creak alarmingly as the
restless waves beat against them. Our unresolved hurts and
conflicts seem to overshadow everything. As we quickly
realize, the sins of the mind are the hardest of all to
overcome. As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he (Proverbs
Perhaps it will help to realize that we are bound to
experience a host of soulish desires, to say nothing of a
tedious parade of ‘but-what-if ’ dreads. The more we learn
to recognize the shape and nature of these thought-attacks,
the easier we will find it to shun them. There are times
when wisdom lies in refusing to join battle with these
After all, we know from bitter experience that they lead
only to spiritual dead-ends and emotional unhappiness.
At other times the best form of defence is attack. By
converting our fears into prayer, we invite the power of the
Lord into the situation. In that sense we can say that the
devil plays his part in teaching us to pray without ceasing!
The attacks of the evil one stir us to pray more fervently,
often for issues we would not otherwise have concerned
For many years I aimed to get away for a few days retreat
every three or four months, not only to rest after a busy
speaking schedule, but also to spend uninterrupted time with
the Lord. I knew this was the Lord’s call on my life, but I
still had to overcome occasional twinges of guilt at leaving
other people working at the grindstone while I was enjoying
time with the Lord.
I have come to realize that I do not go on retreat just for
my own sake, but rather to be one in spirit with our
friends, and on behalf of the world. People’s needs stand
before us with a sharpness and a vividness that rarely
happens when we are too busy. The onset of the land phase of
the Gulf War, the Dunblane massacre, a fire which killed a
vicar’s entire family, revolutions in various eastern
countries as well as a critical moment in the peace talks in
Ireland: these are just some of the many issues that have
occurred while we have been on retreat and which we have
been able to pray about.
True silence is therefore far from inactive. We are able to
enjoy the shared intimacy of two people who care deeply for
each other. In the silence we are also able to embrace the
calling of the watchman, who is ever alert to receive the
promptings of the Spirit.
Making space for silence and solitude helps to counteract
the pressures that we face and takes us beyond the
superficiality of so much that passes for spiritual life
today. It would be a mistake to associate contemplation with
rose-covered cottages, however, and some subconscious
attempt to escape from the harsher realities of the world.
In many ways it brings us more closely in touch with the
suffering of the world.
The Perils of Silence
troubles of life come upon us, because we refuse to
sit quietly for a while in our rooms.
Most of us need
to pay more attention to this call to sit at Jesus’ feet.
There are some, however, who are prone to hold back in the
face of life’s challenges. For them, the idea of ‘enjoying’
God’s presence in this way represents a form of escapism
which would lead them to embrace a world-denying seclusion
that the carpenter of Nazareth could not own.
We lose our fire, and our saltiness, if we withdraw from the
wider body of Christ, just as a coal once removed from the
grate soon loses its heat.
I dare not recommend too much solitude, therefore, lest we
become unhealthily introspective and indifferent to people’s
real needs. Our soul requires the honing that comes from
interacting with the world, honest fellowshipping and even
from direct confrontations. If God wants solitude to play a
primary part in our life (as opposed to merely being a
helpful and enriching aspect of it) He will make this
It is only fair to warn that Satan does not regard the place
of prayer as being out of bounds. Some of his fiercest
temptations come when we are on our own with God. Periods of
silence and reflection that are stimulating and refreshing
when we are at peace with ourselves can prove unnerving and
disorientating when our minds are overwrought.
Silence magnifies the forces that are at work in our inmost
This is not a way of life I would recommend, therefore, for
beginners, the depressed or the neurotic. Pride (or
discouragement) accompany the novice, just as condemnation
and anxiety stalk the emotionally unstable. Simple
friendship and fellowship, together with enjoyment of the
blessings we can find in God’s open air, may well provide a
more balanced diet at certain stages of our pilgrimage than
a prolonged time of ‘seeking the word of the Lord.’
Compulsive activists also find inner stillness elusive. Many
of these people are themselves victims of emotional
deprivation and tend to overanalyse issues to the point
where they have great difficulty in discerning the still
small voice of God.
Solitude is equally wasted when we indulge in idle
fantasies. It is not that it is wrong to dream (the mind
needs to) but it is foolish to dally, for daydreams nurture
insatiable longings which reality can never match. It may be
helpful for us to understand what is happening through the
fantasy process. We often wish or imagine ourselves to be
something we are not. Daydreams, like their nocturnal
counterparts, typically project us to the centre-stage and
so reveal our hidden idolatries.
Unrealistic expectations are also part of the reason why we
make so many unreasonable demands on our long-suffering
partners, friends or pastors. The fundamental mistake we
make is to look to other people to fulfil needs that, in
reality, only the Lord can meet – or which can never
legitimately be met by anyone!
Since delusions feed on isolation, we must be careful. The
devil plies his craft in ways which pander to our religious
instincts. It is easy to entertain strange ideas when we are
too much on our own. Excesses of belief or behaviour can
breed like bacteria when unchecked by the restraining
influence of more balanced fellowship. Our carnal minds
disguise themselves by a variety of subterfuges, including
the conversation-stumping excuse that ‘God has told us to do
it’ – a claim which a more impartial testing would have
revealed to be nonsense.
I can remember times as a young Christian worker when I
entered the Lord’s presence more in the hope of learning the
great plans He had for my life than to give Him the love of
my heart. My desire to seek God was real enough, but my
soulish ambition exposed me to hear all manner of delusions.
The devil is a past master in dangling apparent
opportunities before our eyes, as well as strewing our path
with unhelpful distractions which end up diverting our time
Anything that overfeeds the ego needs to be avoided, as does
any vision which brooks no questioning. Impulsiveness and
isolation are twin rocks on the shores of disaster, which
means that sound judgement and a teachable spirit are
essential qualities if we are to lead the life of reflection
safely. A godly caution, together with a willingness to keep
in touch with people’s real needs, are healthy antidotes to
excessive enthusiasm, lest we fatten our souls on the flimsy
fare of fantasies and delusions.
The risks are genuine, but so too is the calling. It takes
courage to sit quietly with God, and not to run off and lose
ourselves in some other pastime. We must face the devil, but
at the same time avoid condemning ourselves. To this end, it
pays to do what we can to ensure that our times of
contemplation are uninterrupted. Just as revival power is
easily quenched by the hostile criticism and questioning of
other believers, so it takes special grace to remain in the
Lord’s presence once our peace has been distracted by
confusing thoughts and demands.
Will we always break through the turbulence of these
disturbing thoughts and come right through into the presence
of God? I would dearly love to say that of course we will,
but realistically this may not always be the case. If, after
a period of time, our thoughts are simply refusing to
settle, and we find that daydreams are making any serious
reflection impossible, we may well be wiser to go and do
On other occasions, we reach a place of inner stillness only
to have to drag ourselves away again almost immediately as
other duties beckon.
better to have glimpsed and tasted than not to have
come at all.
Something of that inner peace will remain with us in
the midst of the day’s busyness.
To enjoy times
of silence with God is to enter a far greater awareness of
the ways of eternity. But we must still guard our hearts
against attitudes that corrupt and undermine this inner
stillness. Those who spend too much time in their own
company often display an alarming readiness to pass
judgements on all and sundry, mistaking their prejudices for
maturity and wisdom.
None of us is strong enough to carry a prejudice and a cross
at the same time. The Lord warns us ‘not to look down on one
of these little ones.’1 The moment we begin to despise other
people our hearts fill with contempt and scorn and we
distance ourselves from God’s heart of love. There is, of
course, a simple remedy: it is virtually impossible to
despise someone we are praying for!
curiosity often hinders us in the reading of holy
writings, when we seek to understand and discuss,
where we should pass simply on. If you would profit
from your reading, read humbly, simply, honestly,
and not desiring to win a reputation for learning.2
As we have seen,
it takes courage, as well as discipline, to enter into
silence, because it is here that we experience not only
great blessings but also serious challenges. In silence, our
masks fall off as we come face to face with the less
attractive sides of our character.
Which of us finds prayer and forgiveness a natural response
when we are subjected to unkind words and unduly harsh
criticism? Try working your way through these issues,
extending outwards to see how this applies first to the
immediate members of your family, then to your colleagues,
neighbours and church members. Finally, reach out in prayer
to nations or institutions that you consider have been
unkind to you personally, or to people that you love. When
you can freely pray blessing on these people and countries,
with passion of soul but equanimity of heart, you are well
on your way to reaching true inner stillness.
meditate on this verse, and these words from Julian
of Norwich, which sum up the theme of this chapter
Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go
near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of
fools . . .
God is in heaven and you are on earth,
So let your words be few.
This is the reason why we are not at rest in heart
and soul; that here we seek rest in things that are
so little that there is no rest in them, and we do
not know our God who is all mighty, all wise and all
good. For He is true rest. No soul can have rest
until it finds created things are empty.
the soul gives up all for love, so that it can have
Him that is all, then it finds true rest.
God, of Your goodness, give me Yourself, for You are
enough for Me.
1. Matthew 7:5, 18:10.
2. Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ.