Cultivating silence in the modern world

In the Gospels we hear over and over how Jesus slipped away from the crowds and even his disciples to spend time in prayer. In the modern world, it’s hard for us to imagine that Jesus had a need for silence when he didn’t have things like cell phones, TV, radio and the internet to distract him. Yet, Jesus’ actions bear witness to a fundamental reality: It is in silence that we come face to face with God.

While I can’t always slip away from the “crowds” in my life to retreat to prayer, I do recognize the need to turn to God while I’m working, running errands, or spending time with family or friends. The more I thought about this need for prayer in my daily life, the more I realized that cultivating silence in different ways would help lead me to prayer, even if I don’t fill each silent moment with conscious prayers.

Holding space for silence

This past Lent I decided to give up listening to music on my commute to and from work. This was hardly a sacrifice — my commute is short, and usually I just flipped through the radio stations until I landed on a song I knew. But after Lent ended, the habit stuck. The radio (or podcasts) remain off in my car as a default. I wasn’t focused on praying during this time, but the time spent in silence became a placeholder in my life — it held space for silence in a world that is constantly filled with noise.

In “The Power of Silence,” Cardinal Sarah writes: “Silence is more important than any other human work. Because it expresses God. The true revolution comes from silence; it leads us toward God and others so as to place us humbly and generously at their service.”

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Creating this regular encounter with silence — as small as it is — encourages me to grow familiar with silence. It teaches me to not always turn outward for answers and allows room for the thoughts in my heart to rise up. Practicing time in silence is a way of preparing for prayer time by training our minds and hearts to welcome it and be comfortable in it. When we go to pray, our minds and hearts more quickly surrender to the silence of prayer when we’ve allowed silence to become familiar to us.

Silence isn’t always “productive”

Our busy world tempts us to think in terms of productivity, action, endless to-do lists and progress that we can measure, but when we look to our spiritual lives, we see that prayer doesn’t always fit into these categories. We can treat prayer like a task to check off the list, but when we do so, we miss out on a deeper reality.

After removing outside noise from my commute to work, I realized that I needed to actively find ways to create small pockets of silence, not necessarily to pray but to allow my mind and my heart to acquire the taste for silence.

What I found was that it feels very unproductive to be in silence when I’m taking a walk, washing the dishes or weeding the garden. Our world encourages us to multitask, to listen to podcasts or books, or to constantly be making the most of our time.

Choosing to build a life that is comfortable in silence feels wasteful in many ways, as if I should be filling the silence better, but this is a lie. It is in silence that we can hear God’s quiet whisper in our lives and meet him face to face. It is in silence that we learn who we are before God.

Combatting the noise of the world

I regularly take breaks from social media, and I can understand completely why some people would choose to delete all their accounts. But reflecting on making room for silence has helped me see how silence is a way to combat the noise of the world, including social media.

Deleting Instagram or Facebook may immediately make room for more reflection and calm in one’s life, but there is still advertising and marketing, podcasts, audiobooks, Netflix and more — all things that aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Building a life familiar with silence is a way to structure one’s life against the noise of the world and lean on God’s eternal word as our anchor.

When we root ourselves in prayer, we recognize that silence is essential. And when we allow room for silence in our lives and make it a discipline, we create lives that lead us into a deeper relationship with God through prayer.

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