Listening to Silence

There are two things that I really dislike. One is hot food that is already going cold by the time I start to eat it. The other is when someone talks over me when I’m speaking. You know (or at least I hope you do… or else it’s just me…) when your sentences are completed by the person you’re talking to. Or they think they know what you’re trying to say – and then they say it.

Such occurrences often indicate we’re not being listened to. And I have to admit that in such circumstances, I have resorted to giving what Paddington Bear would call ‘a hard stare’ and starting my sentence all over again just to make the point.

We all do something else too (or at least I hope you do… or else it really is just me…). We’re with somebody, they’re talking and instead of listening we’re thinking of what to say in response.

It was possibly long before 55AD when Epictetus, the Greek philosopher said, “You were born with two ears and one mouth for a reason… so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

I expect we can all recall times when we’ve felt listened to – and what a difference it made. And then there are those occasions when we’ve come away from somewhere and not felt listened to at all. The verbal equivalent of a hot meal going cold.

Mary Lou Casey put it like this: “What most people really need is a good listening to.” And such listening often requires silence.

I guess many would agree with the principle of that, but silence is often difficult, isn’t it? If there’s a gap in the conversation, we can feel compelled to fill it rather than experience the awkwardness or embarrassment of what to say next. Being silent takes practice.

Rachel Joyce’s novel, The Music Shop, tells how as a child, the central character Frank would sit with his mum, Peg and listen to music. On one occasion, they prepare to listen to Beethoven’s 5th:

‘‘Brace yourself,’ she said. ‘Here comes the most famous four notes in history.’ Da da da dum. The sound crept out of the silence like a great beast emerging from the sea. Da da da dum. ‘Hear that?… You heard the little pause in the middle?… There is silence inside music too.’… Over time, Peg played all the silences she loved.’

Loving silence takes practice. The ability to be silent with others – and to be allowed to be silent – can often be a true mark of how comfortable we are in their company.

If being silent with other people is difficult then how much more it can be with God. Or at least it can seem that way. It is, at times, undoubtedly difficult to discern what God is saying – and how often we complete God’s sentences in the process.

God does use words and also actions, events and circumstances to speak to us. St John of the Cross also described silence as the ‘first language of God’.

‘Our words are too fragile. God’s silence is too deep,’ writes Barbara Brown Taylor. ‘Silence is as much a sign of God’s presence as of God’s absence – divine silence is not a vacuum to be filled but a mystery to be entered into.’

Silence frees us from some of the distractions of everyday life and allows us to listen and to give intentional attention to God. And yet, being silent doesn’t automatically mean that God will speak. It’s easy to think, ‘Right, your turn now, God.’

We sit in silence, wanting to hear God’s voice, just like the Old Testament figure, Samuel: ‘Speak, for your servant is listening’ (1 Samuel 3:10). And we may well hear it in such times but God also ‘speaks through the earthquake, wind and fire,’ as the hymn puts it. Speaks through the noise that surrounds us. Speaks at times when we are not expecting it.

God is always listening to us. As we talk to God, unlike with other people, it is important that we allow God to speak over what we’re saying. To complete our sentences for us. To say what we are trying to say.

God’s words and love are like a hot meal that does not go cold. And is one which we are invited to eat.

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