The Way of The Heart: Silence in Ministry

This is the second part of our reflections on silence, from Henri Nouwen’s ‘The Way of The Heart’. The first part can be found here

Sr Joanna:

Silence Makes Us Pilgrims, Guards the Fire, and Teaches Us To Speak…

If Silence was a person, it would be risking burnout. If solitude creates the space for us to be transformed, silence protects it. But for Henru Nouwen, silence is also the active component of our journey to transformation, and in ‘teaching us to speak’, the spiritual heart of any act of evangelisation. A great burden is placed on silence as a discipline.

Here Nouwen is speaking about what we are to do with the silence, how we are to use it. But before silence becomes a tool in our spiritual kit, we must enter silence, and use it effectively.

On Friday evenings, the Holywell Community keep a Holy Hour. Besides a few prayers at the beginning and end, this is mostly a chance to sit in silence, looking at the Blessed Sacrament which is exposed on the altar. All we have before us are the candles and the monstrance – a decorated cross with a space to hold a wafer – and the Host within. In the silence, we share that hour of sustained prayer and hope that we will encounter God. But focusing on silent prayer for an hour at a time – let alone the days, weeks or years demanded by the Desert Fathers – can feel nigh on impossible. I was fortunate to have encountered sustained silent prayer as a teenager; I remember being fifteen and amazed at myself that I had survived ten minutes silence in the evening service at Taizé. Nouwen is writing for an audience who are seemingly used to silence, and who can easily still their minds. However, as Nouwen has reminds us at the end of the chapter, modern Christian worship often reduces silence to the bare minimum, and so many Christians encounter it on few occasions. And so we enter silence as strangers. For those of us who love silence, but find our minds and hearts wandering, I want more from Nouwen than an assurance that this, often unreachable, state will improve our faith: I want instructions and assistance in reaching it. Silence makes us pilgrims – but what must we do to make the pilgrimage into silence, and through it?

Practical applications of silence: Preaching, Counselling, and Organizing

Having made the case for the importance of silence, Nouwen gives three examples of places in our ministry where he believes silence may be introduced. It is a useful reminder that this text was written as a tool for ministry, rather than just as a general guide. Nouwen is attempting to demonstrate, I believe, that it is not counter-intuitive to seek a place for solitude and silence in our relationships, and that in finding a place for them we make a place for God. In preaching, for instance, Nouwen suggests repetition of a word of scripture, and that the preacher accepts and encourages the listeners to move from direct attention on the preacher to a space of personal reflection. In counselling, the counsellor must ‘be sensitive to the words of Scripture as words emerging from God’s silence’; in organisation, ministers are to help others create space for silence in their lives, or to create spaces for others to be silent in.

To a degree, I feel that the word ‘silence’ here is serving a multitude; Nouwen stretches it to include active listening, the ability to balance one’s work life, lectio divina, and simple caution in our choice of words. It is not enough to define silence as the absence of sound and speech; Nouwen expects the pilgrim to discover that entering silence is an active path, and that they find themselves listening more attentively to God, Scripture and other humans. My own feeling is that, at least in English, the word ‘silence’ does not do justice to his concept; Nouwen isn’t asking for the absence of sound, but of internal and external distractions from God’s voice. The struggle to absent ourselves from distractions whilst engaging with others, and serving them in God’s silence, is a real one for Christians of every vocation, from the worship band leader to the contemplative monk.

‘What needs to be guarded’, Nouwen writes, ‘is the life of the Spirit within us.’ It seems to me that this is the crux of Nouwen’s argument; Silence as a vehicle for the Spirit. The strength of Nouwen’s argument, it seems to me, is if we take his interpretation of the silence of the desert as a message about dedication to listening to the Holy Spirit, inviting Her into our lives.

Sr Jennii: 

The Ministry of Silence

Nouwen here tries to impart a suggestion on how we can use silence to its full potential and for the good of others. He begins with a question asking to practice a ministry of silence with the power of reflecting God in all his fullness, he highlights the difficulties involved when ‘we have become so contaminated by our wordy world’. But he also tells us that this difficult task is ‘the task Jesus has given us’ and gives us an example of how this can be done. ‘To His disciples Jesus said “The words I say to you I do not speak as from myself; it is the Father, living in me, who is doing this work” (John 14:10) So if Jesus, who is the Word made flesh was here showing that the words he speaks are not his own but those of the Father, how much more so must we strive to make sure our words also come from God living within us. The words He ‘spoke not to attract attention to himself but to show the way to his Father… In order to be a ministry in the name of Jesus, our ministry must also point beyond our words to the unspeakable mystery of God.’ I find this an interesting concept as I am preparing to put myself forward for ministry it speaks greatly to me; on how I must insure that I always hold this in the forefront of my mind, and believe with my heart God will guide me in this ministry.

Nouwen speaks about how silence in today’s society is a terrifying idea. ‘Silence has become a very fearful thing. For most people, silence creates itchiness and nervousness. Many experience silence not as full and rich, but as empty and hollow…As soon as a minister says during a worship service, “let us be silent for a few moments” people tend to become restless…’ In a blog from last year I wrote about prayer and why silent prayer can seem scary for most people ‘Praying can be hard. Praying is a conversation with God, which is why different people find different ways that they are more comfortable with, it’s a personal relationship with God and that relationship will be different for each of us, talking to God should be the simplest thing in the world but it’s difficult and emotional. And why is that so? Simply because for prayer to be done correctly the only thing that is needed is to be open and honest with God. That makes us vulnerable and no one likes feeling vulnerable. I know I don’t, it’s something I struggle with…Think of a person who you love, could be a partner, a parent, sibling, a child or even a friend. That person knows you love them. And you know they love you and yet you still tell each other this. Why? Because we as humans need that intimacy we need the closeness that comes from sharing our emotions. But think of a person whom you love and would you still tell them you loved them if you weren’t sure they felt the same way? That fear of rejection; the anxiety of opening up to someone. This is what makes prayer difficult. Putting ourselves in a position where our emotions are on show is hard because once it’s done there’s no going back. Hopefully the other person in the situation meets your vulnerability and builds you back up and this is what happens with prayer but so often what we pray for is not the root of our needs, it’s a cure of the symptoms not the illness.’ It this vulnerability and openness before God that is present in silence which causes us to be nervous, fearful or anxious, also it is when we take away all those distractions that surround us every day that we see ourselves for who we are, not the mask we show in public.

The full post can be found here.

So does this mean that we abandon silence as a ministry? ‘It is quite understandable that most forms of ministry avoid silence precisely so as to ward off the anxiety it provokes.’ Yes it is understandable, but is it necessary? Here at St. Mary’s the numbers in a our register of services doesn’t show the full number of people who would say they are regular worshipers as many people come in during the week, not to services but to sit and pray in the quiet. As we in the community pray the office three times a day at st. Mary’s we can attest to the vast number of people who will just sit and pray. Nouwen does also go on to make the point that although it is understandable it isn’t necessary in fact its more harmful than helpful, ‘isn’t the purpose of all ministry to reveal that God is not a God of fear but a God of love?’ He also suggest that instead of removing the silence ministers should ‘gently and carefully’ convert ‘the empty silence into a full silence, the anxious silence into a peaceful silence…so that in this converted silence a real encounter with the loving Father could take place?’

Nouwen then looks at how silence can affect three different systems and activities, and it isn’t a case of silence affecting one at a time but rather the very essence of this silence allows the discipline of each to grow and reflect the silence they come from. However when I looked at the three, I found them to be linked and yet distinct, and I can see how each person of the Godhead influences certain aspects.

The three are: Preaching; Counselling; Organising.

Silence and Preaching

‘Our preaching, when it is good, is interesting and moving… It stimulates mind and heart.’ However whilst a vastly detailed sermon may work on a Sunday with a large congregation, in small groups it may not be the best tact. An alternative is given: ‘There is a way of preaching in which the word of Scripture is repeated quietly and regularly, with a short comment here and there, in order to let that word create an inner space where we can listen to the Lord.’ This is very similar to the devotion of Lectio Divina, or divine reading, in which a short passage of scripture is read a few times then there is a period of silence, although it would appear to only consist of two steps, reading and silence, there are actually four or sometimes five steps, those being: Lectio (reading, what is the text); Meditatio (mediation, what does the text say to me); Complatio (contemplation, what is the Lord asking of me through this text); Oratio (reply, what is my answer to the Lord); Actio (action; what can I do to carry out what the Lord is saying to me). This way of reading the scriptures is very personal, we hear the scripture as a group but those words will be holding a different message for each of us, so in the silence we are able to listen and respond to God personally, if you are interested in this, the community prays Lectio every Wednesday morning.

Nouwen then goes on to describe how scripture can ‘become like a hedge around a garden in which God’s shepherding can be sensed’. The way this was described in the book instantly made me think of the daily office we pray as the community, in which we recite the psalms quietly and persistently until they become a part of our being and we focus more on the Word of life they ignite within us rather than just reading them from a page, they become tangible and moving. ‘These words, which at first might seem to be no more than a metaphor, can slowly descend from the mind into the heart. There they may offer the context in which an inner transformation…take place’.

When I think about this way of learning the scriptures so that they become a part of one’s own heart and using the scriptures as a way of teaching others, I am remind of various points of Jesus’ own ministry and the way in which He often did this, and out of the three persons of the Godhead, He is the one who is most thought of preaching and teaching.

Silence and counselling

Nouwen gives us a modern day interpretation of what counselling is: ‘Counselling is understood by many to be a way in which one person listens to another and guides him or her to better self-understanding.’ This seems to echo the workings of prayer, where God listens to a person and guides him or her to better self-understanding. This relationship can be built up by the guidance of a priest; as Nouwen suggests ‘the relationship between pastor and counselee as a way of entering together into the loving silence of God and waiting there for the healing Word.

For me as well as many others, just this idea of a counsellor would bring to mind the Holy Spirit; this is also true of Nouwen as he states ‘the Holy Spirit is called the Divine Counsellor. He is actively present in those who come together to discern God’s will.’ This is where spiritual directors come in. Spiritual Directors are men and women, lay and ordained, and who come from a wide variety of backgrounds and Christian churches, who share a calling to support others on their journey into the love of God. Spiritual direction is a rather old practice though it has not always had this name or the structured format that we have today of one on one meetings, in fact many people sought out the Desert Fathers and Mothers to help them deepen their own unique relationship with God. Since that time the ministry of Spiritual Direction has developed. Nouwen seems to notice this too and comments that ‘human counsellors should see their primary task the work of helping their parishioners to become aware of the movements of the Divine Counsellor and encourage them to follow these movements without fear.’ As mentioned above, silence can be intimidating and Nouwen suggested that clergy should gently introduce their parishioners to it, this is one way of doing so as they can ‘lead fearful parishioners into the silence of God, and help them to feel at home there, trusting they will slowly discover the healing presence of the Spirit.’ Maybe when parishioners become relaxed and at peace in silence outside of worship they will begin to welcome it within services without the anxiety they currently have?

This role of the minister as a counsellor is more like a travelling companion, they accompany the parishioner to the true counsellor and sit with them in the silence that they find, both parishioner and minister using the silence to listen to what they are being told, and hear the direction they are given.

Silence and Organising

This idea of organising isn’t just a case of managing time and work desks: it’s more of a system or rule of life, it’s a process of being, of knowing who you are in your core: ‘I would like to stress the importance of silence in the ways a minister organises his own life and that of others.’ Nouwen uses this section to discuss how ministers need to be aware of what they are actually meant to be doing in their ministry, not in a practical sense but the reasons behind why. He compares our society today and the motivations behind activities with the role of the church ‘In a society in which entertainment and distractions are such important preoccupations….Our task is the opposite of distraction. Our task is to help people concentrate on the real but often hidden event of God’s active presence in their lives.’ Often a church can be just as bad at offering distractions feeling they are ‘in fierce competition with people and institutions who offer something more exciting’ or a better distraction, so churches put on events to help combat this, but often these too are just distracts and ways of keeping people busy, but Nouwen speaks of a new way of planning events where the motivation behind the event ‘is not how to keep people busy but how to keep them from being so busy that they can no longer hear the voice of God who speaks in silence.’ This very idea of calling people together into something counter cultural to show them the depth of the hidden wonders of their beings and the plan that is there for them strikes me as the Father speaking through the silence, the same Father whom spoke to Moses through the burning bush in order to reveal to Moses the hidden aspect of himself and express his wishes for Moses to be the one to rescue His people; or with Abraham where God revealed to him, just how faithful and loyal Abraham was, then told him of the plan He had to make Abraham the father of the nations.

This idea of organising then is more than just management but revealing and building trust, Nouwen talks about it as being a community ‘calling people together, therefore, means calling them away from the fragmenting and distracting worldliness…to that silence in which they can discover themselves, each other and God. Thus organising can be seen as the creation of space where communion becomes possible and community can develop.

Through the three examples of preaching, counselling and organising we are given a glimpse of the Trinity at work in the silence, all though the three are separate, one would not work without the others. They are the parts that come together to build the function ‘these examples of silence in preaching, counselling, and organising are meant to illustrate how silence can help determine the practical shape of our ministry.’ We are called to minister in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Not just one. Our ministry is a threefold ministry.

Nouwen here goes to finally speak of the importance of silence of the heart over the silence of the mouth, giving a quote from Abba Poemen: ‘A man may seem to be silent, but if his heart is condemning others he is babbling ceaselessly. But there may be another who talks from morning till night and yet he is truly silent,’ It is through our heart we hear the Lord, and it will be the inner stirrings of our hearts on which we our Judged when the day comes. And that is because; the deepest desires of our hearts are what motivates what comes out of our mouths: ‘Silence is primarily a quality of the heart that leads to ever-growing charity.’

This sentiment is echoed in the story given of a visitor and a hermit, in which the ‘visitor said to the hermit “sorry for making you break your rule.” But the monk answered “my rule is to practice the virtue of hospitality towards those who come to see me and send them home in peace” This for me sums up the purpose of silence, it is a tool to be used to bring us closer to God so that we may grow into his image more and more each day, refusing to answer someone because it is a period dedicated to silence is counteractive to this communion with God, never once did Jesus turn people away, no matter what he was doing, he made the time to minister to all who came to him.

Sr Joanna:

This chapter of The Way of The Heart pulls at the tensions between literal and metaphorical interpretations of silence, causing considerable debate for us as a community as we puzzled over our feelings on silence. Are we sometimes called to speech, and how does spiritual silence impact on our call to communicate and share our faith? May we never regret staying silent? Is it possible to aspire to speech without the corruption of evil? In short, is silence as good as Nouwen promises?

A little part of me feels disappointed that the conclusion Nouwen offers is a compromise between the two positions. His argument is neatly summarised in this sentence from the conclusion:

             ‘[…] A more important message from the desert [than the value of not speaking as a spiritual practice] is that silence is above all a quality of the heart that can stay with us even on our conversation with others.’

I find myself agreeing with Nouwen, but uncertain how I bring this to fullness in my life as he leaves it. To make sense of his conclusion I have to turn to the Rule of St Benedict, which guides our life here, and look for times in the day which can be devoted to silence, unless hospitality demands otherwise. I’m not convinced that the Desert Fathers and Mothers would have chosen the life of isolation if it was possible to achieve silence as a ‘quality of heart’ without some very literal strictures on when to keep silence, and when to speak or communicate. So before we can achieve this quality, we have to go through the grind of living it as a literal part of our lives. What this means for each of us will vary, but my sense is that this is no gentle, reassuring theology, but a challenge to radically alter the structure of our lives.

So what conclusion do I draw for myself? I can’t reject language as emphatically as Nouwen does, although his words on the regret caused by speech struck home. Silence, and the space to listen, has been a place I have found through words and after words, rather than in moving away from them. But I hope that as I seek to find ways to bring silence into my life, I will find silence in my heart as Nouwen so clearly does. It seems to me that in our efforts to describe silence, we are reaching for a way to describe our longing for God to fill the whole of us, and for the peace of being reunited with Him.

Sr Jennii: 

‘Silence can also give us concrete guidance in the practice of our ministry.’ It is through silence we hear God speaking to us. When I was discerning what it is God is calling me to, I went to spiritual direction, I spoke to Clerics but more importantly I spent time in silence, asking God with my heart what it is I am meant to be doing, and praying that he would reveal his plan to me. This process didn’t stop when I discerned a call to the diaconate, I know pray for God to walk with me and help me to discover and build the skills and qualities needed for this.

The main aspect of this chapter that I struggled with was that although I understand the importance of silence, I believe that the practice and way in which it is implements is personal, as with those who offer a public ministry. It isn’t always practical to set aside specific times for silence, I feel that it needs to be similar to solitude, there needs to be a way of taking silence with us, as in a parish setting, the phone can ring at any time day or night with a parishioner in need of pastoral care. In that respect sectioning off time of silence would be difficult as you never know if something is going to happen – maybe sectioning off time where no meeting or other distractions are taking place, where they can enter into the silence but be available should anything come up, then carry that silence in their hearts.

How do you use silence in your daily life? Leave us a comment with your thoughts! 

One thought on “The Way of The Heart: Silence in Ministry

  1. Thoroughly enjoying your unpacking of The Way of the Heart series as people living the many issues under discussion. Keep up the great work you continue to do on a daily basis! You are truly blessed as your work blesses others.


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