These our my current thoughts on cultivating interior silence. These ideas are in no way final and my understanding, as ever, is a work in progress.
It is true that we cannot control God, or make spiritual experiences happen by our own will or efforts. We can’t make his felt presence turn up. God is in control, and it is by his will that he will commune with us. However, it is important to know that we have some work on our side, to facilitate his presence. As the prophet Isaiah commands us, we must “prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (Isaiah 40:3)
We have the seed of the kingdom within us, but like a farmer we cannot force the crops to grow, we have to wait. The growing of the crops is the work of the Lord, but any good farmer knows that he has work to do to facilitate this growth. He must prepare the soil. If he does not prepare the soil, he cannot expect a good crop to grow.
There is a story from the book of Proverbs, where Solomon comes across a vineyard that has been badly neglected:
“I went past the field of a sluggard, past the vineyard of someone who has no sense; thorns had come up everywhere, the ground was covered with weeds, and the stone wall was in ruins. I applied my heart to what I observed and learned a lesson from what I saw: A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest— and poverty will come on you like a thief and scarcity like an armed man.”
Yes, it is God’s business when he turns up, or when the crops grow, but he has prepared works for us in advance, and these works include spiritual works. If we are like the owner of this vineyard, and we have neglected our spiritual disciplines, we cannot complain that God hasn’t turned up. If we really want to host the presence of God, we must prepare the soil by cultivating interior silence. Sometimes, God will show up with no effort on our part, and interior silence will follow from his presence, but most often encountering his presence will follow from interior silence. I’m not saying this is the only way to prepare the soil, but cultivating interior silence is an important spiritual discipline, if we want to go deeper with God.
God says to us, “be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10) So “be still” here is a command or an instruction. It’s something we do on our side, that God is asking us to do. It is a spiritual work that God has prepared for us. Like a good farmer, we need to tend to our inner soil regularly, and not let it get completely out of hand like the vineyard Solomon came across.
So how do we produce this silence within us? There are many methods, and if you are really serious, I would pick up a book by Richard Foster, such as ‘Sanctuary of the Soul’, or Pete Greig’s ‘How to Pray’. There are many good books out there, but these are a couple I think are brilliant.
Pete Greig explains interior silence beautifully in his book, ‘How to Pray’:
“Five hundred years ago, St John of the Cross captured the tranquillity of such moments in a lovely phrase: ‘my house now being all stilled’. The lights are off, doors locked, the street outside has fallen silent and inside every living thing has been put to bed. Finally, I am ready to host the whispering King.”
The essential practice is to rest our attention on God, and train ourselves to overcome distractions. One method I would do is to sit still on a chair, in a comfortable position but with my back straight. Then I would scan through my body, noticing any tension and consciously releasing it and relaxing each body part. Then once my body is all settled and stilled, I will bring to mind a short Bible verse, such as “be still and know that I am God”, or “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner”, and I would slowly and quietly repeat this, gently focusing my attention on the words. Then when my mind wanders away and I get distracted, I simply notice this has happened and bring my attention back. This process of getting distracted and then coming back is the method of training in concentration. This will help us to cultivate interior silence, if practiced regularly. Ideally, daily. Around 20 minutes will do, but there is no shame in starting with a shorter time and building it up.
“This process of getting distracted and then coming back is the method of training in concentration.”
Using our imagination is another helpful way of fixing our minds on God and overcoming distractions. You may want to experiment and see which method works best for you. You can try imagining a scene from the life of Jesus, or using the visual descriptions of God from Revelation 1 or Daniel 7. The fundamental practice is the same, whether using a short verse or a visual image. It’s about fixing our attention on God and overcoming distractions. It’s about noticing our attention has wandered and then gently bringing it back.
You can also combine this with your daily Bible reading. You can read through a chapter slowly and meditatively, and focus on a short verse or phrase, or a visual image, that seems to stand out for you, and take this as your object of focus.
You will find that as you cultivate interior silence, some of the obstacles between you and the Spirit will fall away. I notice, that if I still my mind first, then I go on to reading the word or singing worship, my experience of God is intensified. In worship in particular, it is helpful to keep these principles in mind. Singing to God with our attention fixed on him, having overcome distractions, can lead us into deep encounters with our Lord.
However, we should not try to hunt for big experiences or feelings, as this can lead us to discontent. The most important thing to keep in mind throughout all our spiritual practice is that we should surrender to God’s will. We are not trying to make anything happen, to achieve any experience or become a success in some way. We don’t want our prayer time to become all about our ego and striving. We surrender the moment to God. We let go. “Whatever you want to happen in this time God, let your will be done.” This letting go and surrendering is so important, and if you take anything away from this blog post, please let it be that.