A wise old bird lived in an oak;
The more he saw, the less he spoke.
The less he spoke, the more he heard
Why can't we all be like that bird?
* * * * *
Sydney Smith once said of Lord Macauley, "He has occasional flashes of silence that make his conversation perfectly delightful." The gentleman's point was well taken: We talk too much.
Imagine you are standing near the edge of a huge granite mass in a high range of mountains. Before you stretches a lush valley full of native trees. A small stream splashes over the boulders below, but you cannot hear it. Everywhere is silence.
There's not a leaf that falls upon the ground,
But holds some joy of silence or of sound.
You are in a joyful, triumphal mood after your solo hike from the valley. You breath in the mountain air deeply, and open your mouth to shout, but your voice seems reluctant to break the golden silence. You are absolutely alone. You remember how much time Jesus spent alone in silence on the mountainside
with His Father. With the breeze blowing in your face you whisper, "Beautiful. Thank You, Father. Thank You, Jesus."
Giving thanks, even silently, is an easy way to open up the channels between earth and heaven. Peter Forsyth writes,
"Inward joy is fulfilled in the prayer of thanksgiving."1
As for our Father God, with requests coming to Him every half-second from everywhere, begging, appealing, petitioning, pleading, even demanding, it must refresh His Sovereign Majesty to field a prayer that expresses nothing but gratitude. Not even an R.S.V.P.!
To be alone with silence, said Samuel Hageman, is to be alone with God. In the stillness, whether on a mountain or at home in bed, we can reflect quietly on the excellencies of Him who is always desiring to communicate with us. So we "talk" to Him with our minds and our hearts. If this is a first attempt, we tell Him, "We're sorry, but we've been thinking about starting to pray to You for a long time, but you know how it is we just haven't gotten around to it." Having done that, we can relax in the silence for awhile, perhaps just contemplating the attributes of the Infinite One. If we are still on the mountain, we can look out over a distant delta and whisper with Sidney Lanier:
As the marsh-hen secretly builds on the watery sod,
Behold I will build me a nest on the greatness of God.2
Silence has always been a corridor to God. Ignatius, who was bishop of the church at Antioch some 85 years after Christ, wrote a letter to a nearby church at Philadelphia and said of its bishop, "I am charmed by his sweetness of manner. He accomplishes more by his silence than others do that talk to no purpose." However, in one of the surviving manuscripts of that letter Ignatius' compliment is paid not to the bishop, but to Jesus!3 And how true it sounds.
Jesus' silent withdrawals for prayer were well-known to His disciples. Another who knew about them was Pontius Pilate. He couldn't believe his prisoner's refusal to defend Himself. Repeatedly he questioned Jesus about the charges against Him,
but our Lord maintained His silence. As a Negro spiritual rendered it, "He never said a mumblin' word."
When the Welsh Revival of 1904-06 was at its height, a young minor who was one of its leaders traveled through the countryside of Wales, stopping on Sundays in villages and towns to preach in churches. The churches would be crowded, expecting him to arrive and take the pulpit. But when he showed up, he would often slip into a pew and remain there praying silently throughout while the singing and witnessing went on. Just the power of Evan Roberts' quiet presence, it was said, was electrifying. Many people were saved. It was as if the congregation had a "wild surmise" of heaven itself.
A warmhearted foreign missionary, Charlie Andrews, wrote a book telling of his long years in India, during which many of his experiences were discouraging. He suffered a lot of criticism for his attitude of love toward all the Indian people. He even lost his standing in his church over a theological point. He wrote these lines:
I have failed. Things have gone wrong, within and without, but especially within. My heart has become troubled and discouraged with the sense of repeated disappointment. Anxiety has increased. My whole inner mind has become clouded and perplexed. But He [Jesus], the great Teacher, has been bearing with my questionings as a friend, and as a friend He makes plain His own meaning, revealing His purpose.
And then, ah! then, there has come silently flowing back, like the tide of the great ocean, His own boundless love into my heart, and all doubts and fears have been purged away. The dark night of the soul, with its troubled dreams, has vanished, and my eyes have been opened to the light of a new dawn. I have known once again that "His compassions fail not; they are new every morning." The very air I breathe, the sky above me, the earth at my feet all nature now seems to be bathed in a glorious light, transfigured by the joy that is in my own soul.4
Peace and solitude. Absolute silence that never betrays us. As some of us enter the latter years of life, we become better acquainted with the silences, especially during the hours between sunset and sunrise. In such times of solitude our thoughts flow into memories, and we call up pleasant scenes of the past.
I am grateful to the Sunday schools I attended as a boy, and to the teachers who encouraged me to memorize different parts of the Bible, notably the Psalms. Now in my latter years, instead of picking up the worries of the day, I lie in bed at night and call up different Scriptures, thinking through them silently.
Filling the joys of silence with God's Word is a tonic not only for the human mind but also for the body. Just to be quiet! To sit among one's books hearing nothing except perhaps something pleasant in the distance, such as popcorn poppin! Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, "Silence, like a poultice, comes to heal the blows of sound."5 And what a privilege to open the Bible and read, "Wait on the LORD; be of good courage, and He shall strengthen your heart; wait, I say, on the LORD!"6
Here is a delightful passage that I find never fails to lift my spirit as I think my way through the verses:
Make a joyful shout to the LORD, all you lands!
Serve the LORD with gladness; come before His presence with singing.
Know that the LORD, He is God. It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves;
We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.
Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise.
Be thankful to Him and bless His name,
For the LORD is good; His mercy is everlasting, and His truth endures to all generations.7
Notice the words joyful, gladness, singing, thankful, bless, and praise. When we keep company with such thoughts, silence becomes filled with angel sounds.
Here is another Psalm that, as one lies quietly at night, seems almost to explode with the joy of thanksgiving:
I love the LORD, for he heard my voice;
he heard my cry for mercy.
Because he turned his ear to me,
I will call on him as long as I live.
The cords of death entangled me,
the anguish of the grave came upon me;
I was overcome by trouble and sorrow.
Then I called on the name of the LORD:
"O LORD, save me!"
The LORD is gracious and righteous;
our God is full of compassion.
The LORD protects the simplehearted;
when I was in great need, he saved me.
Be at rest once more, O my soul,
for the LORD has been good to you.
For you, O LORD, have delivered my soul from death,
my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling,
that I may walk before the LORD
in the land of the living.
I believed; therefore I said,
"I am greatly afflicted."
And in my dismay I said,
"All men are liars."
How can I repay the LORD
for all his goodness to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the LORD .
I will fulfill my vows to the LORD
in the presence of all his people.
Precious in the sight of the LORD
is the death of his saints.
O LORD, truly I am your servant;
I am your servant, the son of your maidservant;
you have freed me from my chains.
I will sacrifice a thank offering to you
and call on the name of the LORD.
I will fulfill my vows to the LORD
in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the house of the LORD
in your midst, O Jerusalem.
Praise the LORD!8
Where Ruth and I live at present there are seven entrances into our home in addition to the front door. The seven ways are the mailbox, the telephone, the fax machine, the radio, the television set, the newspaper, and email. Under such conditions a stretch of silence is not easy. The one welcome sound I prefer to all others is that of my wife's voice, which is like that of King Lear's daughter Cordelia, whose "voice was ever soft, gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman."9
Now I would like to take you back to the top of that granite mountain. We shall walk among the tall silent stands of yellow pine and Douglas fir, the birch and the poplar, where the woodpeckers tap, the swallows dart by, the breeze touches the treetops, and all nature seems filled with joy.
I wrote a poem once after hiking to a bit of water in the High Sierra known as "Lost Lake." Here it is:
I knelt beside a lonely lake
where all was green and blue;
I asked the Lord to take my life
and fashion it anew.
And as I knelt, a breath I felt
of glory in that place;
The Spirit of the Living God
came down in power and grace.
The wind soughed gently through the trees;
no other sound was heard,
but as of yore Christ walked the shore
and broke to me His Word;
and angel trumpets filled the air
in praise to God the Son,
and all the pine trees clapped their hands
at what the Lord had done.
Up there in the silence where God's nearness is a felt reality, it is easy to visualize Him smiling. It is easy to think of my Jesus as walking alongside us, sharing the delights of nature, but even more the blessedness of the Spirit. As the apostle Paul wrote long ago, "We look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal."10
1. P.T. Forsyth, The Soul of Prayer (London: Independent Press, 1954), pp. 13-14.
2. Sidney Lanier, The Marshes of Glynn.
3. Cf. "Ignatius to the Philadelphians," in Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 1, Epistles of St. Clement of Rome and St. Ignatius of Antioch, tr. J.A. Kleist (New York: Newman Press, 1946), p. 85
4. C.F. Andrews, Christ in the Silence (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1933), pp. 234-35.
5. Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Music Grinders.
6. Psalm 27: 14
7. Psalm 100
8. Psalm 116. This psalm became known in World War II as the "Psalm of Bataan," as it was a favorite of American troops during the horrors of the "Bataan death march" following the fall of Corregidor (Philippines) to the Japanese in the early months of the war in the Pacific.
9. William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act 5, Scene 3.
10. 2 Corinthians 4:18
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