Make a Joyful Silence: While Protestants Traditionally Emphasize the Word and Words, Many Are Learning to Meet God in Quiet Contemplation

By Barton, Ruth Haley | Sojourners Magazine, February 2009 | Go to article overview

Make a Joyful Silence: While Protestants Traditionally Emphasize the Word and Words, Many Are Learning to Meet God in Quiet Contemplation


Barton, Ruth Haley, Sojourners Magazine


LONG AGO, A WISE SPIRITUAL DIRECTOR said to me, "Ruth, you are like a jar of river water all shaken up. What you need is to sit still long enough so that the sediment can settle and the water can become clear." This was an invitation to "be still and know" beyond my addiction to noise, words, people, and performance-oriented activity.

In Protestant circles at the time, anyone talking about solitude, silence, contemplation, or centering prayer was assumed to be embracing some sort of New Age philosophy, or to be well on their way to becoming a Buddhist. But my previous methods for seeking God Bible study, prayer journals, more and better preaching, self-help books, small group gatherings--were coming up empty. And as I said yes to the invitation to solitude and silence. as challenging as it was. I experienced powerful results in my life that I could not have experienced in any other way.

Fifteen years later. 3,200 high school-age young people gathered at a Youth for Christ conference in Ocean City, Maryland. In most ways, it was a normal event of its kind: stimulating speakers great music, and fun entertainment, But the organizers Protestants all! t had a vision to end the conference with something different. As the young people made their way into the convention hall for the final session, leaders met them with signs asking everyone to enter silently. The music and worship were quiet and focused on just being in God's presence. I taught from the story of Elijah, speaking about the radical nature of" the disciplines of solitude and silence, and then asked if everyone was ready to try it together. The resounding "yes!" was a roar throughout the auditorium.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

After some simple guidance, the young people moved out to the edges of the convention hall, some kneeling, some lying flat on the floor, some sitting with open hands in their seats. The worship leader and I knelt on the stage and the lights went down. The atmosphere was electric as the presence of the Holy Spirit filled the room in the sound of sheer silence. For many, it was the highlight of the conference.

IN THE YEARS after my own invitation to solitude and silence--entered into with such fear, trepidation, and sense of isolation within my own faith tradition--my contemplative spiritual practice has led me to a life of" teaching and writing among Protestants about these Christian disciplines. The number of invitations in these arenas is growing so much that on some days it feels like an entire tradition has come to the place of longing and desperation from which I started my own search so long ago.

These days, Protestant Christians are responding to that longing by embracing the classic spiritual disciplines that seekers through the ages have used to enter into the experience of God's transforming presence. There is a groundswell of interest in solitude, silence, lectio divina, prayer walking and labyrinths, fixed-hour prayer, liturgy, Sabbath-keeping, and spiritual direction (see sidebar). Books and teachings about the contemplative life have proliferated in Protestant circles; many are discovering the desert mothers and fathers and the great Catholic authors who have kept these teachings alive for us.

There are still many who are suspicious, even antagonistic. A couple of years ago as I was preparing to speak at Biola University about spiritual disciplines, someone circulated a warning e-mail with the subject line "Buddhism at Biola!" This language was stunning to me, given the biblical nature of everything I was teaching. Those who feel it is their duty to warn Christendom about contemplative practices also disseminate diatribes, on the Web and elsewhere, against spiritual leaders such as Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, Eugene Peterson, and Brian McLaren.

All of this is somewhat predictable given the fact that, as Protestants, we are known by what we protest. But when the early reformers protested some of the excesses of the Catholic Church, they 'also threw out elements of the spiritual life that we couldn't afford to lose--and we have been the poorer for it. …

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