I love (and miss) the TV philosophical comedy/drama "Northern Exposure," which ran from 1990 to 1995. The quirky characters and deep, meaningful nonsense provoked both laughter and deep thought. One of my favorite characters was Bob, the Flying Man. The viewer never actually sees him fly, but he shows up in the strangest places, with no other explanation besides bodily flight. Some people acknowledge his ability to fly, while others dismiss the claim as rediculous. Bob is a virtually silent character, and nobody really knows why he rarely speaks. The following scene, a conversation between The Flying Man and Marilyn, has stuck in my memory for years. In three lines, it explains the mystery of human flight.
Marilyn: Words are a heavy thing.
Bob: Like rocks.
Marilyn: They weigh you down. If birds talked, they couldn't fly.
This is true in our prayer time, and it is true in our everyday interactions. The vain words we use weigh us down. They keep us from soaring in God's blessing and grace. This is what today's readings have to say about silence and words:
Ecclesiastes 4:6* Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.
Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool's voice with many words.
When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands? For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear.
Ecclesiastes 6:11 The more words, the more vanity, and what is the advantage to man?
2 Timothy 2:14, 16-17a Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers... But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene.
2 Timothy 2:24-25 And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.
"Words are heavy things. Like rocks. They weigh you down. If birds talked, they couldn't fly." And the heavier your words are, the less you'll be able to fly.
That's not to say that all words are bad--but we must watch our words carefully, to make sure that they are honoring to God. We must also be careful to make sure that we're not simply filling up the silence with distracting chatter.
People tend to be uncomfortable with silence. It makes us nervous, because it forces us to listen to the still, small voice of God who speaks within our quieted hearts. Silences makes us turn inward, to examine ourselves. And when we examine ourselves, we find things that we don't like so much. So, rather than allowing silence to cleanse us, we'd rather fill our day with TV, radio, meaningless (rather than meaningful) conversation, and other things that distract us. But the Flying Man would caution us that too many words can weigh you down.
Don't get me wrong--I'm not advocating a vow of silence. Even the monks who are known for that don't actually take a vow of silence. They simply restrict speech to that which is meaningful and edifying. The Trappist wesbite says:
For hundreds of years, Trappist monks and nuns have been known for living a very silent life. Consequently, people commonly know Trappists as “the monks who don't talk”. They know we take vows and so naturally suppose we take a vow of silence. The truth is, Trappists have never actually taken an explicit vow of silence. We take three vows, which have their source in the Rule of St. Benedict, written in the sixth century: A vow of Stability, promising to live the rest of our lives with one monastic community, A vow of Obedience to an abbot and a Vow of “Conversion of Manners”, the promise to live the monastic life in all its parts as described by the Rule of St. Benedict and the Constitutions of our Order. This last vow of “conversion” takes in the practice of celibacy, fasting, manual labor, separation from the world and silence. It then remains for the monk or nun to apply themselves faithfully to the observance of silence characteristic of their own community. Relative to the way most people live, this is definitely a commitment to pretty radical silence. A Trappist monastery is a quiet place! In a Trappist monastery, monks typically have three motivations to speak to one another: to get a particular work project carried out efficiently, to engage in a community discussion, or to discuss one's spiritual progress with a director or confessor. Sometimes, too, Trappists will enjoy friendly conversations with each other in a conversation room or in nature. These different types of conversation are balanced with the discipline of fostering a general atmosphere of silence in the monastery. Trappists find the silence helps them to practice continual prayer. But, strictly speaking – no, we do not explicitly vow to be silent on the day we make our profession of vows.
As a spiritual discipline, why not try taking a day of silence? To do this, you might have to retreat from people. If you must be around people, then Richard Foster, author of A Celebration of Discipline, suggests carrying a card that tells people that you're in silence for the day. However you manage it, practicing silence in your life can bring you in touch with the quiet heart of God.
Another practice that you might try is wordless prayer. I'm not talking about praying silently, where you speak all the words you have to say in your mind, without letting sound pass your lips. Instead, I'm suggesting that you pray without words at all...from your mouth or from your mind. Simply sit in God's presence, without letting words contaminate the beauty of silence that is between you and the Lord. Like an old couple who sits on the front porch together, holding hands without the need for words, just be in God's presence. Hold hands with Him and simply enjoy Him, without the need to say anything. Listen to what God has to say to you, instead of always telling Him what He already knows. Maybe The Lover of Your Soul will whisper words to you, that you might not have heard if you had been filling up the silence with speech of your own.
I pray that today, and every day, you'll find some time for silence. Because it's only when we grow quiet that can we truly hear.
*All scriptures taken from the ESV.