Being particularly fond of folk music, I happen to enjoy a blast from the past with a good dose of Simon and Garfunkel every now and then. One favorite song of the era was “The Sound of Silence”. This haunting tune describes the irony of modern society and how technology has not facilitated communication and interaction, but instead it has divided and isolated us even more. We exist in distant pockets and lose our ability to reach out and touch each other. A dire prophecy from that generation, I wonder if we have seen an even more profound level of such societal evolution as we suffer in our seclusion.
Yet silence can be good therapy. We seldom find actual silence or quiet in this frantic world. In fact, the travel agency community has predicted that the next wave of getaways which are becoming more popular than ever are the silent getaways and retreats. People pay hundreds and even thousands of dollars to escape from it all into the mountains or by the sea to immerse themselves in silence. They leave behind all technology and many choose to also stop communicating with others until the prescribed time has elapsed. The implication is that in lieu of the normal routine interactions from without, each individual will become introspective and find a fresh understanding of God by shutting out the distractions.
I could embrace this concept if I felt confident that the outcome would bear fruit. But I fear what we might end up experiencing may be something like an extended moment of silence instead. You know what I’m referring to; the inoffensive, all inclusive moment of silence which has co-opted our culture and replaced the genuine call to prayer. The moment of silence began with the Quakers of the colonial days who attempted to affect a commonality with the local Lenape Indians by worshipping together. Since their religious traditions were equally foreign to the other, they worshipped together, side by side in silence in a statement of peace and goodwill. This gesture grew to become embraced by secular governments, educational institutions and other civil occasions. Never intending for this to replace their individual beliefs, it simply offered a non-threatening way for a diverse gathering to express collective reverence or sorrow during a time of tragedy or other solemn observance.
Modern America loves the moment of silence. Sadly, we have many opportunities to observe it and more and more frequently we see that the alternative – actually ardently seeking God – is seldom if ever employed in modern societyr. It’s so friendly and vague. We don’t risk offending anyone by presuming someone pray. We may choose to bow our heads or floss our teeth during this designated moment of silence. Nothing dictates the use of these sixty seconds, other than the fact that we refrain from speaking. Hence my concern that the trendy silent retreat phenomenon is little more than an overgrown version of this pluralistic practice.
If the silent retreat is to seriously draw us into the holy place where we sense the presence of Almighty God and learn how to hear his voice, then I would encourage each and every person to place this item on his bucket list. If the silent retreat were to result in a heightened awareness of the sacred, in the crucifying of our flesh and the quickening of the spirit within, I wholeheartedly recommend scrimping and saving to participate in the next one that comes along. If, however, the silent retreat becomes simply a respite from modern hustle and bustle or a weekend away from the demands of the twenty first century rat race, then why bother? I tend to resist when I’m asked to observe a moment of silence as I view it as an empty ritual and a vapid social convention. I eschew the lifeless symbol of an irreverently bowed head but I could go for some authentic sounds of silence that would open my spiritual ears to hear what the Spirit is saying.