Guard your steps when you go to the house of God; to draw near to listen is better than the sacrifice offered by fools; for they do not know how to keep from doing evil. Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore, let your words be few. (Ecclesiastes 5:1-3)
One of the ways to embrace the discipline is to simply practice the silence of speaking less (and listening more). As the desert father Arsenius said, “I have often repented of having spoken, but never of having remained silent,” which is a way of describing that cringe-worthy moment we’ve all felt when careless words left our lips. While it is true that most of us live in and work in environments where total silence is not an option, practicing the art of speaking less in the company of others can help us cultivate the kind of inner distance needed to choose our words carefully. This in turn will help us to listen, observe and truly receive others.
The need to be heard runs deep. In a culture awash in words, how rare it is to feel that we have been truly listened to? And yet we often fill our interactions with words in order to adjust our appearance with others and gain their approval. The inner confidence we desire is a grace we can receive through the practice of remaining quiet.
Silence also teaches us how to speak. In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “Genuine speech comes out of silence, and genuine silence comes out of speech.” When we have encountered God and drawn deep from the silence in which his love rests secure, we then gain the ability to engage others from that place and lead them to the deep rest of silence. After we know that quiet confidence, we may help others who are searching for reassurance and approval find what they desire most in the rest that only God offers.
SPIRITUAL PRACTICE: Not Having the Last Word
In addition to setting a timer for 7 minutes of silence and allowing God to search your thoughts, consider practicing the discipline of silence as you engage with others today. Bear the words of St. Francis in mind, “seek more to understand than be understood.” Ask questions and simply listen. Be aware of those impulses within you that would try to win approval, surrender them to the Lord.
When moments of silence emerge in the course of conversation, allow them to happen. Practice empathy, maintain eye-contact and see the person you’re with as a unique bearer of God’s image. Resist the urge to fill silences—it is often in these moments you offer the greatest assurance by simply being there.
In meetings, do your best to encourage the contributions of others. Be cognizant of being the first one to offer a solution or needing to have the last word.