One of the disciplines of the contemplative life is practicing periods of silence to listen to God and to think. It is hard to find quiet in our clanging mostly urban and suburban world. Yet such time is important for our sanity and the health of our souls.
I recently returned from my third retreat and vacation to the island of Iona, one island in Scotland’s’ Inner Hebrides. Approximately three miles long and one and a half miles wide, Iona is home to the historic Iona Abbey, founded by St. Columbia in 553. The current structure dates to the Thirteenth Century and fell into disrepair. After numerous renovations over the centuries, it was almost completely restored in the early 20th Century and again repaired recently. It is now an ecumenical Christian center for worship and spiritual retreat, as well as a historic preservation.
Early in the trip a new friend asked me, “With all of the beautiful places in the world to see (and Iona is ruggedly beautiful), why do you keep coming back?”
I tried to give a succinct answer, but I think it is a combination of things: the beauty, the quiet (only the approximately 175 permanent residents of the island are allowed to own motorized vehicles), the worship services held in several churches on the island, the company of long-time friends with whom I have traveled and the Christian history which is so evident.
Iona has been called a ‘thin place’, a place where the space between God and humanity has been easier to span. It is not that God is closer to me when I visit; it is that I am encouraged by the quiet and lack of distractions to carefully listen to God.
After hearing about the advantages of silence from a gregarious pastor on Sunday morning, my friends and I discussed how hard it was to be quiet and listen. One woman said that silence sometimes forced her attention toward things she really didn’t want to think about and caused her to grab her MP3 player and headphones. But she stopped instead and listened to some of the feelings and thoughts she believed God wanted her to work through.
I think she pinpointed one of the significant reasons that it is hard to be silent, to still our bodies and minds and attend to the thoughts of God. He often has things to say to us that we might not want to face – but need to for our spiritual health.
If you are not used to silence and your mind is prone to racing thoughts, only five minutes of quiet and disciplined focus on the Lord can be a good beginning. You will be amazed by what you hear!