Silence Please

A Quiet Place

Silence Please
Brian Zahnd

Ours is an angry and vociferous age. We’re constantly subjected to the noise of charged political rhetoric — the wearying din of the culture wars. Too often Sunday morning can be little more than a religious echo of this same noise. But shouldn’t Sunday be a Christian Sabbath, a time to quiet our souls and receive the gift of silence? What if, instead of being another contributor to this clatter, our churches became a shelter from the storm offering respite to shell-shocked souls?

Silence belongs to an earlier age. Ours is an age of noise. With our technological progress has come the din of modernity. With the advent of digital social media has come the white noise of everyone “expressing themselves.” Silence is now a precious commodity, a scarce resource hard to come by. Sure, we can pray anywhere, anytime, but to pray well, to pray in a way that restores the soul, we need to find some quiet places. This is what we find appealing in the holy hush of the cathedral, the sacred stillness of the monastery, the reverent quiet of the woods.

When birdsong and gentle footfall replace the shrill rancor of 24-7 news and the inane blare from five-hundred channels, the soul has a chance to heal. Without some intentional silence the weary soul is a prisoner being slowly worked to death in a merciless gulag of endless noise. The always-posted sign at the entrance of the tourist-attracting cathedrals is perhaps a desperate plea from the soul of modern man — Silence Please.

It’s not just the silence of prayer that is needed — a posture of quietude needs to be adopted by contemporary Christianity, especially in North America. Too much of the most visible presence of Christianity is loud, vociferous, and angry. It bears a closer resemblance to shock-jocks than Saint Francis. And I don’t hesitate to suggest that Francis of Assisi might offer us a better model than Rush of Limbaugh. We don’t need to add more noise to the raging tumult that is America. We have enough of that as it is…and it’s not helping.

A paradigm of protest and a preoccupation with power has given us wrong ideas. When we imagine the kingdom of God coming as a tsunami of irresistible force, we think our public presence needs to be loud, demonstrative, and even combative. This is entirely wrong. Babylon is built by the noisy machinery of war, conquest, and power politics, but not the kingdom of God.

Almost all of Jesus’ kingdom parables are quiet stories. According to Jesus the kingdom of God is like seed being sown, like plants growing, like bread rising. It’s domestic, not militant. It’s like a woman sweeping her house, like a shepherd searching for a lost sheep, like a wayward son coming home at last. It never gets much louder than the music and dancing of a house party.

Because we are obsessed with all things “big” and “powerful” in the conventional sense, we are convinced that to change the world the kingdom of God needs to sound like a deafening construction site — bulldozers and jackhammers. But the kingdom coming isn’t as much like a construction site as a forest growing.

The church is not a special interest group that has to make its demands known. We don’t have to “fight for our rights” anymore than Jesus did. We don’t have to mimic the noise of special-interest anger. We can be an alternative of quietness and trust. The church doesn’t have to make things happen, it can simply be that part of the world that trusts God and lives under the peaceable reign of Christ here and now.

As Yves Congar has said, “The Church is not a special little group, isolated, apart…The Church is the world as believing in Christ.” In a world that surely must grow weary of the harsh blare of ideological anger, the church is to be a haven of quietness and trust, a gentle refuge of peace.

—From Water To Wine, pp. 115–119


P.S. The photo is called A Quiet Place: Tundra, Rocky Mountain National Park and was taken by my friend and professional photographer Erik Stensland. Regarding the photo Erik says,

“Whether we realize it or not, we all need times of solitude and quiet. It is when we finally let go of all the external noises and distractions that we can begin to hear the things that are truly important. There is a world of activity happening deep inside each of us that we rarely connect with, the very core of who we are. In the stillness we not only find out what is happening inside our deepest being, but we also connect with a stillness and peace that goes far deeper than ourselves. This is the main reason that I took up photography, so that I could visit tarns like this to sit, listen and allow myself to be healed and changed in the process.”

If you are ever in Estes Park, Colorado, I highly recommend that you visit Erik’s gallery, Images of RMNP.

  • Vicki

    This is beautifully said. What you write here, “Babylon is built by the noisy machinery of war, conquest, and power politics…,” makes me think of how Tolkien portrays the horrible, noisy machinery of Isengard causing the destruction of nature all around it. I’ve read that he intended just what you say, the contrast between this evil force and the quiet goodness of the Fellowship. I think you’re right that “We can be an alternative of quietness and trust” in a deafening world.

  • Andy Merrick

    The small things… Rush of Limbaugh!! Funny. And the word “tarn”… never knew that word before today. Just want to write you on what your post made me think…

    So many people just get swept away by the country’s Christian leaders. “Don’t be in any rush to become a teacher, my friends. Teaching is highly responsible work. Teachers are held to the strictest standards.” From a starting point of their rightness, too many of the Church’s leaders would look down on people like you, Brian, never considering that their “orthodoxy” can be considered “modern orthodoxy” and, just maybe, subject to God and his “strictest standards.” But they’re so busy pointing and yelling – “being combative” – that few pause to sit in silence and wonder about how they conduct themselves.

    There’s the saying, “Be ‘in’ the world but not ‘of’ the world.” But, as you mention, too many end up looking just like the rest of the world – angry, protesting. It makes me think of that place in John 17… Jesus prays to the Father that the bros wouldn’t be taken out of the world, but protected from the evil one. Well, it hit me reading your piece, Brian… much public sphere noise from the church borders on rage. Where does rage come from? Wherever, it isn’t God. “It’s a holy anger,” they say. “Jesus came to bring a sword,” they say. Problem is: Jesus has the title Prince of Peace and, as you know, shalom is a guiding ethic whose typical absence should cause us to be concerned. And, like you wrote, how should we hope to get peace but through what transfers to us in the peace of silence with God?

    Your writing matters, Brian. Appreciate you, man.

  • Amen.

    Thank you, Andy.

    Here’s a picture I took of my favorite tarn — Andrews Tarn in Rocky Mountain National Park.

  • Andy Merrick

    BRO! C’MON! The Caribbean up in the Rockies!?!? That’s ridiculous!

  • Except that’s snow, not sand. 🙂

  • Dustyn Holland

    It is an awesome picture and I couldn’t agree more regarding the importance of silence, not just personally but collaboratively. Some years ago I found myself on the brink of walking away from the church for that simple fact, too much noise. Not so much because of the church itself, but more because I needed the church to be a refuge or a sanctuary to get away from the non-stop bombardments of life that made centering myself with God difficult, which the church failed at providing. I’ve always been one who finds social norms and social statuses, all noise, to be exhausting and the real handicap of the church. I actually was telling my wife the other day that church sometimes feels like a Chamber of Commerce breakfast just with better music.

    It’s still hard to escape the noise, but I find myself more and more having to accept/deal with it for the sake of bringing my children up in church. Ideally church would be full of authenticity, but i’ve abandoned that hope. Perhaps our shift into an age of…whatever you want to call this…has created a people that expect nothing short of chaos where the church must compete for their attention, and being a father of three myself I can say whomever makes the most noise is more likely to get the most attention.

    I do wish it was different however.

  • Jc Cone

    I have found this to be true in my life, but whether I actually practice it or not is another story. I think that most of us intuitively know that we need this silence, but I think many of us fear it. When we aren’t distracted by everything around us we are confronted by other things within that are not always comfortable to face. That’s what I often experience at least! I know you hike a lot, but when you are home do you have a favorite area to practice this? Also, on your podcast you have mentioned you school of prayer. I am considering flying up. Do you think you will be hosting it again in the future?


  • Our next Prayer School is April 1 & 2.

  • Michael

    16 years of taking and leading solitude & silence retreats beginning with Auxano students in 2005. Life altering.

  • Michael J. Brown

    Greatly appreciated this article as well as your Friday night podcast on “Silence”! Truly spoke to my heart in my struggle of King, Country and Bipartisan politics.

    I’ve stayed as far away from the “noise” as of late. But, Tuesday evening, it was too deafening to avoid. I gave in and was swept right along into it. Guess that’s pretty easy to do when a man starts his victory speech with, “God bless the great state of Iowa”. And, “Let me first of all say, to God be the Glory”. Or, even alludes to God’s sovereignty in “We the People”.

    Being entirely uninvolved with either side of the political movements, my evangelical narrative and conservative upbringing so desired for me to jump onto the ship. Yet, something in my heart wasn’t right. At that time, I couldn’t quite figure it out. But after the podcast on “silence”, you pretty much nailed it on the head. That bipartisan politics can lead to a dysfunctional life, well as you said it, a dysfunctional America. And why? Because the political noise so easily drowns out any substantive thought. YEP, so true! How quick it leads me into “FIGHT” or “FLIGHT” mode.

    Pondering this further, I realized that there will always be a struggle between the politics of this world and our journey with Christ. And because of that, I, as a twenty-something believer, living in the early part of the twenty-first century, and residing in this World’s (declared) greatest nation; must come to TRUST Him. To recognize that the God of my heart, the God that breathes his very life into me, will never perfectly align with the God of my country. And that’s okay! Because I don’t have to try and change the entire world. I just need to be the part of the world that is changed! And just maybe, others will want that too. Joining me in going the Jesus way! WHEW, what a freeing truth that is!

    Anyway, time to stop fighting again and move back to the alternative of quietness and trust! Stoked for prayer school in April! Appreciate you and your heart!