The Search for Silence

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Marlene Sweeney

“Keep quiet.” “Be still.” “No talking.”

Sometimes I wonder if most adults hear those commands with a punitive voice. Do we arrive at adulthood with negative associations and feelings around silence and others requesting us to live without our usual noise and chatter? It has been my experience, even when facilitating adult retreats, that asking for a time of complete silence is a bold challenge, difficult for many participants.

Why do people find it difficult to sit in silence? And if adults are incapable of being still, is there any merit to seeking silence with children? Does intentional silence have a place in our life with God? How can we help others become comfortable with quiet so that we might all benefit from a time of deepening our prayer life and feeling connected with that which is far greater than the noise of the day?

Ring, Ching, Ding

One need only spend a few minutes at a shopping mall or public eatery to observe our culture’s obsession with noise. There’s the man happily chomping on his meal while talking on his phone. There’s the youngster with the iPod earbuds in her ears. There’s the woman responding to the ding that alerts her to a new text message. Somewhere nearby, a patron’s watch chings to announce an appointment. And all the while music blares in the background.

Silence seems very foreign.

As religious educators intent on helping others develop relationships with the God who lives among us, we face a huge counter-cultural mission to suggest that silence may be beneficial to a healthy spiritual life.

Being a firm believer in never asking of children what we do not practice ourselves, I see our task to be one of introducing adults to the benefits of silence and quiet meditation. Subsequently, the children will come to understand and appreciate the gift of silence in their own lives.

Quietly Begin

Hopefully, inviting catechists and/or parents together for prayer is already part of your ministry. Advertising an evening of shared silence probably won’t attract most people. However, Lent and the Easter Season afford many opportunities to gather for community prayer when silence can be a part of the worship.

Stations of the Cross, Taize prayer, Eucharistic adoration, evening or morning prayer, Stations of Light: These are good places to begin. When we gather for a new form of prayer, it is helpful to prepare participants for what will happen. “Tonight we will pray the Stations of the Cross. As the presider moves to each station, he will offer a short reflection. You are invited to remain seated, listen prayerfully, and respond by silently reflecting on the action of Jesus we hear about. Your silent response will last about three minutes at each station.”

Such precise instructions allow people to enter into the experience with a certain sense of confidence. In the silence, people don’t become anxious about someone forgetting what comes next or, worse, feeling a need to take charge of the perceived lull in activity. Invite participants to enter into the silence and allow the quiet to speak to them.

In this instance, you are asking people to center on the action of Jesus. In other situations, you may have a prayers focus on a word or object that rests their minds and hearts on God. Remind people that distractions are part of our human condition, that the more often they practice sitting silently with God, the more they will find themselves focusing for longer periods of time.

Create the Space

Affirming the power of centering prayer or silent meditation often grows slowly in communities. If you are fortunate enough to find people embracing this silent form of prayer, you might want to consider creating a special prayer room within your parish campus.

A small space with a few places to sit, or pillows on the floor, and perhaps an icon or religious object can create an inviting place for busy parents to seek silence for a few minutes before they pick up children or when programs are in process.

And the Children Will Follow

Adults often tend to think children lack the maturity and perhaps discipline to remain silent in group situations. Watching young children mesmerized for a period of time before a hand-held video game, I am left to think their ability to meditate may be closely linked to their imagination. Providing children with a story, a song, a Scripture, a poem, or an object to hold might offer them a place to begin to sit quietly and experience contemplation for the first time.

Surely our children’s need to be invited into the silence of listening to God is no different than ours. Together we can search for silence and be renewed—away from the noise of the world.


Marlene Sweeney, Med, MA, is a Certified Pastoral Associate in the Archdiocese of Chicago. Marlene is a writer and poet whose works have appeared in numerous books and periodicals.

This article was originally published in Catechist magazine, February 2010.

Image Credit: Shutter Stock 578942014

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