We live in a wordy world.
We are surrounded by words: Notifications illuminate our phones, text rolls across TV screens as another speaks, and words shout from street signs and billboards as we drive. Words everywhere.
Our words hardly mean anything in a world like this. We pile up words, use clichés tirelessly, and fill even the briefest silences with rephrased phrases. I occasionally find myself using the same sentences again, hoping I haven’t said these very words to this very person.
As a teaching pastor, frequent reader, and occasional writer, my life depends upon words. Or does it?
Forty years ago, Henri Nouwen lamented the loss of silence in our wordy world. He noticed that any bit of silence makes us uncomfortable, nervous, and itchy. In The Way of the Heart, he prescribed a conversion of our silence. Our task is…
“Gently and carefully converting the empty silence into a full silence, the anxious silence into a peaceful silence, and the restless silence into a restful silence, so that in this converted silence a real encounter with the loving Father [can] take place.”
A contemplative, Nouwen gave his life to teaching silence—a bit of an oxymoron. Late in life, he gave up his teaching position at Yale to become chaplain to a community of disabled adults, and his hard-working words were now of little use. After teaching silence, it was finally forced upon him.
A friend of mine recently pointed me to a poem. Wendell Berry, the Henry County, Kentucky farmer and award-winning writer, wrote these simple words.
I dream of a quiet man
who explains nothing and defends
nothing, but only knows
where the rarest wildflowers
are blooming, and who goes,
and finds that he is smiling
not by his own will.
I dream of a quiet man. Not a busy one, not an anxious one. Not even a clever one, a successful one, or a well-liked one. A quiet man is hard to find.
The book of Ecclesiastes calls an abundance of words “the sacrifice of fools” (5:1) and invites us to let our words be few (5:2). “Many words mark the speech of a fool” (5:3). “The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone?” (6:11). But “the quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools” (9:17).
Why is it so difficult to be silent, especially in the presence of others—when we might explain everything and defend ourselves fiercely? As Richard Foster has written, “Silence is intimately related to trust.” Silence in solitude builds our trust in the eternal Word and our strong Defender. Silence among others builds trust with them—as we listen first, seek understanding, and speak only what is most appropriate.
Like the man in Berry’s imagination, we might be surprised what we find in quietude. We might remember where the rarest wildflowers are blooming, and not just remember, but go. And perhaps, we might even find ourselves smiling—the relaxed, trusting state of the closed mouth.
I dream of a quiet man.