For Talking Beasts: Begin with Silence
by Sarah Colyn
In The Magician’s Nephew, C. S. Lewis tells how Narnia began. At the climax of Aslan’s creative work he makes the talking beasts:
And now, for the first time, the Lion was quite silent. He was going to and fro among the animals. And every now and then he would go up to two of them (always two at a time) and touch their noses with his . . . The pairs which he had touched instantly left their own kind and followed him. At last he stood still and all the creatures whom he had touched came and stood in a wide circle around him . . . The chosen beasts who remained were now utterly silent, all with their eyes fixed intently upon the Lion. . . For the first time that day there was complete silence, except for the noise of running water. . .
The Lion, whose eyes never blinked, stared at the animals as hard as if he was going to burn them up with his mere stare. And gradually a change came over them. The smaller ones – the rabbits, moles, and such-like, grew a good deal larger. The very big ones – you noticed it most with the elephants – grew a little smaller. Many animals sat up on their hind legs. Most put their heads on one side as if they were trying very hard to understand. The Lion opened his mouth, but no sound came from it; he was breathing out, a long, warm breath; it seemed to sway all the beasts as the wind sways a line of trees. Far overhead from beyond the veil of blue sky which hid them the stars sang again; a pure, cold, difficult music. Then there came a swift flash like fire (but it burnt nobody) either from the sky or from the Lion itself, and every drop of blood tingled in the children’s bodies, and the deepest, wildest voice they had ever heard was saying:
‘Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.’ (p. 48)
With this article I begin a series of reflections on what it means for us to be ‘talking beasts’ in our world. I pray that the Lord will breathe His long, warm breath through these words that they might be a rich blessing to you.
What does it mean to be a talking beast? Aslan’s words to these chosen ones in Narnia call them to a dignified, soul-stirring great commission: “Awake. Love. Think. Speak.” He is calling them to be creatures with a magnanimity more fundamental and all-encompassing than mere talkativeness. I love Lewis’s imagining of the talking beasts of Narnia. He is pointing to what an awesome responsibility it is to be human, and what a defining quality it is to be able to talk. Our capacity to talk reflects a singularly meaningful facet of the imago dei. By being talking beasts, we participate in the divine Logos, Word become flesh.
Maybe you’ve heard someone described as “quite a talker.” We know instinctively that to awaken, love, think, and speak is not about having a lot to say or being “quite a talker.” To become fully and beautifully human we must indeed learn to talk. But silence is where we must begin our quest to be and become talking beasts.
If we want to speak—truly speak—as awake, loving, thinking creatures, we begin in silence. This is true on every level of reality. Each of our lives begins in the secret silence of the womb; our first vocalization comes months after our first heartbeat. Each word that we speak requires an intake of breath and a moment of thought. Existentially, our doing proceeds from our being. First God created us, formed our beings, and gave us His own ruach, His very breath. As the “All Sons and Daughters” worship song expresses, “It’s Your breath in our lungs, so we pour out our praise to You only” (Leonard, Ingram and Jordan, 2012). It is as human beings, in-breathed by His being, that we are able to speak.
In Kallistos Ware’s book The Inner Kingdom, he points to silence as the genesis of true speech:
In an age when language has been shamefully trivialized, it is vital to rediscover the power of the word; and this means rediscovering the nature of silence, not just as a pause in the midst of our talk, but as one of the primary realities of existence (p. 136).
It is good for us to recognize silence as a primary reality. Silence is not merely an absence of talk but is something in itself. Silence is created, a given in our lives, made by God. We’d do well to consider what silence is and what it does for our talking-ness.
Silence is a blessed given of existence, a real thing that proceeds from God’s own being. Our holy God reveals Himself as I AM, the Existent One. In His being, in His presence, we encounter His existing-ness, and we enter silence as a given reality. In Scripture the prophets call God’s people to attend His presence:
But the Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before Him.
Be silent in the presence of the Lord God; For the day of the Lord is at hand,
For the Lord has prepared a sacrifice; He has invited His guests.
Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord, for He is aroused from His holy habitation!
(Habakkuk 2:20; Zephaniah 1:7; Zechariah 2:13 NKJV)
In these texts we are called to be receptive, for God is coming. He is the Lord, He is on the move, and He has something for us. To silence ourselves is to become dynamically receptive to God, to practice His presence, to quiet ourselves, to hold our peace, to wait and rest. In silence He gathers up the fullness of our beings in His presence. Silence in its truest sense is a substantial and active state of being.
To be clear about silence, I will say a bit about what it is not. We may at times be mute in resignation, acedia, or passivity, and we may also sometimes encounter interpersonal voids, empty spaces where no one is engaging in real dialog. But these non-being absences are not what is meant by this powerful given of silence. Most mothers I know do not permit their children to say “Shut up” to one another. This colloquial phrase that tells another to stop talking has a rough edge to it. To order someone to shut his mouth is indeed a form of violence, although such violence may at times be protective and just. Even when we discipline someone by urging him or her to hush, our aim is to keep the door open for constructive talking. Coming back to speaking is still the goal of such correction. As we’re considering here, silence is a beginning and a centering place for talking beasts. But talking is still our commission, and God gives silence as a gift to aid us in being awake, thoughtful, and loving when we do speak.
To shut a person up is to cause her to stop talking, not as a call into silence, but as a damning up, a closing down, a pivot away from being and toward nothingness. In Life Together, Bonhoeffer says, “Silence does not mean dumbness, as speech does not mean chatter,” and goes on to quote Ernest Hello, “Dumbness is unholy, like a thing only maimed, not cleanly sacrificed” (p. 78). Dumbness is not silence as we’re considering it. We are looking for the silence that is a creative space, a hopeful space, and in this holy silence a person is not shut in, shut up, or shut down, but rather is ushered into the presence of God.
Silence then is a real thing, not merely an absence but an active and living entity. We experience silence as a contrast and complement to speech, as reception is to expression, inhale to exhale. Silence is a given in the rhythms of life as the writer of Ecclesiastes declares: there is “a time to keep silence, And a time to speak” (3:7 KJV). In Life Together Bonhoeffer writes, “Right speech comes out of silence, and right silence comes out of speech” (p. 79). Receptivity to the divine Word, to God Himself with us and within us, occurs in and through silence.
We are silent before hearing the Word because our thoughts are already directed to the Word, as a child is quiet when he enters his father’s room. We are silent after hearing the Word because the Word is still speaking and dwelling within us. . . . There is a wonderful power of clarification, purification, and concentration upon the essential thing in being quiet (pp. 79, 80).
Silence precedes speech and in this sense is a gathering-up space. The spiritual womb of silence enabled Mary to treasure in her heart the words of God’s messenger. The very incarnation of God was accomplished in silence, through silence, and the Word became flesh to dwell among us. “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” is an ancient hymn that evokes the awe-filled quiet that falls upon us at the coming of the Word:
Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.
Silence also comes to us naturally after we speak. When we express something meaningful and true, we go through words into the life of God, and therefore again into silence. In The Soul of Prayer P. T. Forsyth describes how prayer can bring us into a region beyond speech:
Words fail us in prayer oftener than anywhere else; and the Spirit must come in aid of our infirmity, set out our case to God, and give to us an unspoken freedom in prayer, the possession of our central soul, the reality of our inmost personality in organic contact with His. We are taken up from human speech to the region of the divine Word, where Word is deed . . . We discover how poor a use of words it is to work them into argument and pursue their dialectic consequences. There is a deeper movement of speech than that, and a more inward mystery, wherein the Word does not spread out to wisdom, nor broods in dream, but gathers to power and condenses to action. The Word becomes Flesh, Soul, Life, the active conquering kingdom of God (p. 16).
How we need this deeper movement of speech that draws us into the life of God. Christian tradition has used the term recollection to describe our movement toward this unspoken freedom, this possession of the central soul. By actively settling the soul in silence before God, we are granted personal integration. St. Augustine described recollection as a state in which God “brings together what is scattered” within us (Confessions, 10.40). In the holiness of silence we turn ourselves fully over to God’s presence and providence. A quieted soul is the home within, a resting place within an active life. It is in the womb of silence that we come to know the inmost reality of our being in living contact with His being. Leanne describes our true center: “that place of quiet strength and solid being, that center from which we know and see ourselves to be white-robed in the very righteousness of Christ Himself” (Restoring the Christian Soul, p. 26).
The Hebrew root Has, which means “to be silent,” expresses this gathering-up quality, the home within, as in these texts:
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him;
For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence,
(Psalm 131:2a; Psalm 37:7a; Psalm 62:5a ESV)
This silence is relational and integrating because it is towards Someone. There is an implicit trust in real silence, a hopeful expectation in the only One we wait for, look to, trust in and rely upon. Here we see how the silence of Christian reality differs from the nothingness and dissolving sense of being pursued in Eastern meditation. In the book of Acts we find the word hésuchazó, meaning “to be still, be silent, to lead a quiet life.” In chapter 11, after Peter has given the believers a clear and blessed teaching, we get the sense that teaching has “gone in:” “When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God” (Acts 11:18a NKJV, italics mine).
In this becoming silent, reason and conscience are satisfied so that the people are at rest and moved to glorify God. This silence indicates consolation and satisfaction, like a hunger sated, a storm quieted, or even a war zone in which peace has been won. In silence we can hope to encounter ultimate reality where the veil thins between eternity and us, and we know, as Julian of Norwich expressed, that “all manner of things shall be well.” While silence is often consoling, we will also consider later how silence can be disturbing and painful. But whether comforting or provoking, we recognize that God moves in the quiet spaces to heal and mature us.
Silence keeps us grounded
As a given of existence, silence serves us in critically important ways. We’ll turn now to consider silence as a spiritual discipline, a means that God has provided to protect and empower us so that we might become glorious talking beasts. The discipline of silence is a powerful weapon against the threats of the world, the flesh, and the devil. God has provided us with the power to tune out these opposing voices and listen instead to His other, larger, quieter voice.
Silencing the world
Let’s begin by considering how silence can be a shield from the noise of this fallen world. The world today is anything but quiet, and we suffer when silence is stolen from us. The secularism that grips much of the developed world debases and demeans man and woman, deconstructs truth, and fills the airwaves with coarse and cynical chatter. A trip to the shopping mall reveals the wasteland we’re left with when we strip life of meaning and try to fill the emptiness with consumption and distraction. This world is an overwhelming generator of sights and sounds designed only to manipulate our bodily senses. Rather than encountering one another as living people sharing words together that build meaning, we’re inundated with infotainment and mood-altering soundtracks. The world’s noise bounces around in the void and fails to feed us. While our sin nature would keep us busy generating and consuming stimulation, Christ offers all a soul-saving alternative: we can use silence as a strong tower, wielding our authority to turn off the noise and listen instead for His voice. In silence we stop the noise and refuse distraction and stimulation for its own sake.
Dallas Willard describes spiritual disciplines as activities we undertake “to bring us into more effective cooperation with Christ and His kingdom” (Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 158; an excellent read that Leanne strongly recommended). I find it notable that many believers call their daily time of Scripture reading and prayer their “quiet time.” In this set-apart time and place, the voices of the world are literally not allowed to enter—email, social media, television, phone and radio are shut down. The family devotional we use at home includes a moment of stillness with the instruction, “In the silence, ask the Holy Spirit to help you pay attention to God” (Copley and Vander Haagen, Teach Us to Pray, p. 14). Even small moments of silence can shift our posture and outlook, and when we practice these regularly, our capacity to be quiet grows. By intentionally and routinely putting ourselves in a place of quiet, we are strengthening our ability to hear God’s voice and to tune out the inundation of sounds, words, and stimulation of the world. Those who practice the discipline of silence will steadily find themselves quieter inside even in the noisiest circumstances. Leanne writes that we must learn to quiet ourselves in listening prayer, to pause from “Martha work” and exercise our “Mary” capacity to be in the silence of his presence:
The literal translation of Psalm 62:1 is: ”My soul is silence in God alone, my salvation comes from Him.” In this silence we hear Him speak. . . . Within this silence our spiritual ears are attuned to receive the word He may need to speak throughout the noisier, more hectic times of the day (Listening Prayer, p. 151).
By viewing silence as a discipline, we are recognizing it as something we can practice in order to transform our minds into Christlikeness.
Silencing the flesh
The discipline of silence is also strategic in subduing the flesh, our sin nature. Without silence, we readily use our capacity to talk to serve self-serving and self-protective impulses. Silence slows those urges and reminds us of our freedom to choose Christ’s way and trust the Father to guide and defend us. In Celebration of Discipline Richard Foster makes a strong case for silence as an essential discipline in quieting the flesh:
The tongue is our most powerful weapon of manipulation. A frantic stream of words flows from us because we are in a constant process of adjusting our public image. We fear so deeply what we think other people see in us that we talk in order to straighten out their understanding. . . . Silence is one of the deepest Disciplines of the Spirit simply because it puts the stopper on all self-justification. One of the first fruits of silence is the freedom to let God be our justifier (p. 101).
This therapeutic and narcissistic age encourages self-expression to a point of absurdity, urging the flesh to speak continuously. The idea of choosing silence, of resting in quiet and treasuring things in our hearts is suspect, and instead we are encouraged to expose every thought and “vent” our feelings. Agnes Sanford highlights a wise contrast here between the world’s guidance and the deeper wisdom of the Christ-life: “If one desires only to get something off his chest, well and good. But if one desires to develop spiritual powers, let him get something into his chest instead: namely, the love of Christ” (Behold Your God, p. 21). As Henri Nouwen writes in Reaching Out,
There is a false form of honesty that suggests that nothing should remain hidden and that everything should be said, expressed and communicated. . . . Just as words lose their power when they are not born out of silence, so openness loses its meaning when there is no ability to be closed (p. 32).
The book of Proverbs emphasizes the wisdom of being able to be closed, to contain ourselves and hold some of our thoughts and feelings for the Lord’s ears only:
When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable,
but he who restrains his lips is wise.
When words are many, transgression is not lacking,
but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.
A fool gives full vent to his spirit,
but a wise man quietly holds it back.
Whoever restrains his words has knowledge,
and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.
(Proverbs 10:19; 29:11; 17:27 ESV)
Sometimes we use the phrase, “I’m just being real,” to justify the spewing of immature and emotionally reactive words. In doing so we are often deepening the grooves of old sins and injuries rather than finding true comfort and healing. God deeply desires to make us real and has a better way. Silence is a discipline that can check our preoccupation with the injured and immature self. Often it is in quiet with Him that we finally notice how very tired we are of the old complaints and our sick ways of reacting to them. Then we are able to receive from Him the healing word that will open new ways of being and relating.
The discipline of silence reminds us of the value of verbal restraint, what the epistle of St. James calls a bridle on the tongue. Perhaps the most obvious use of silence is in simply staying quiet when what we’re inclined to say would be destructive. Here too the book of Proverbs points to the better way:
Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense,
but a man of understanding remains silent.
Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets,
but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered. (Proverbs 11:12-13 ESV)
Earlier I suggested that silence is the place to begin for talking beasts, and the book of Proverbs upholds silence as a beginning strategy for those who would become wise.
Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise;
when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent. (Proverbs 17:28 ESV)
The discipline of silence is a tremendously valuable gift that gives us the upper hand over sinful and unhealed impulses. Silence opens up the opportunity for us to change, to grow, and to leave foolishness behind in exchange for the wisdom of Christ.
Silencing the devil
The discipline of silence can also deliver us from evil and help us stop listening to the words of the devil. The evil one hates all of God’s creative achievements, including the beauty of silence, and relentlessly works to destroy this good. Lewis included this reality in his clever exposure of the works of evil, Screwtape Letters. Letters between a senior demon and his nephew reveal their strategy: “We will make the whole universe a noise in the end” (p. 103).
When we are plagued with accusations, condemnations, and harassing words, listening prayer lets us run into God’s protective presence. By yielding to Him the ugly things we’re hearing, we can enter into holy silence and listen for His voice. In quiet the Holy Spirit will give us His healing word, speaking truth to banish lies and giving words of life that defeat death. A dear friend and prayer partner of mine recently shared how the Holy Spirit has been ministering to her in this regard. When a chorus of accusing inner voices starts clamoring, she sees herself as defendant in a courtroom with Jesus sitting beside as her public defender. As the noisy witnesses for the prosecution voice their words of criticism and condemnation, Jesus invites her to bury her head in His shoulder, or He quietly writes a note to her on His yellow legal pad, “Don’t worry about it, I’ve never lost a case.” What a gift, what a release, to let Him have those hateful words while we rest quietly and press into Him as our defender, advocate, and Lord.
What we must do: choose silence
Clearly we have an essential and unalterable need for quiet, but it is not often readily on offer in our daily lives. The reflective space afforded by silence has disappeared from this world, and our hearts cry out for quiet. So as with any good gift of God that is opposed and obscured by this world, we find that we must exercise that powerful and even godlike capacity we call the will. Dallas Willard gives this fatherly exhortation to choose silence:
God will, generally speaking, not compete for our attention. If we will not withdraw from the things that obsess and exhaust us into solitude and silence, he will usually leave us to our own devices. He calls us to “be still and know.” To the soul disciplined to wait quietly before him, to lavish time upon this practice, he will make himself known in ways that will redirect our every thought, feeling and choice. The body itself will enter a different world of rest and strength (Spiritual Disciplines, Spiritual Formation and the Restoration of the Soul, p. 106).
John Gaynor Banks also urges us to choose silence:
Your daily life is too crowded with noise, activity and vibrations for Divine Love to reach and cure your frustrations. . . . Your conscious faculties must reach upwards and inwards. With your volition you must “seek the Lord and be silent towards Him” (Master and Disciple, p. 125).
As Willard and Banks both teach, we must actively choose to make friends with silence through the action of our will, practicing, and spending the time that it takes to increase our capacity for quiet.
Quieting ourselves toward God is the only way to come to know what is really in our own hearts. We cannot be talking beasts unless our words come from a foundation of truth and reality. And we cannot speak words of truth if we are continually running, noisy, and disconnected. Let’s remember that our topic here is how to be talking beasts—to be awake, to think, to love, and to speak. Quiet is not an end in itself, but an essential foundation from which we can speak words of reality and life. Kallistos Ware too urges us to learn to be quiet:
Each must learn to be alone, and so in the stillness of their own heart they will begin to hear the wordless speech of the Spirit, thus discovering the truth about themselves and about God. Then their word to others will be a word of power, because it is a word out of silence (Inner Kingdom, p. 133).
Because we are fallen beasts living in a fallen creation, we don’t readily pursue the gift of silence. It is true that quiet offers a gathering-up place for the soul, but quiet also makes room for us to remember the trouble we are in and feel the pain of conviction. If we’ve been running, wrapping our raw selves in noise, then pausing in silence will disturb us. Nighttime can be especially challenging as fear, guilt, and shame that we’d avoided during the noisy day speak loudly. Some of us avoid silence because of what surfaces when we quiet down. The inner wounds that make silence painful are the very places where we need healing and union with Christ. In Crisis in Masculinity, Leanne shares David’s story, a gifted pastor whose life and ministry were jeopardized by sin generated by his deep inner wounds. When he and Leanne first met, “he could not spend ten quiet minutes alone in prayer. . . . When he was still for even a moment, he ran the danger of hearing the accusing voices of self-hatred within” (p. 52). He needed help so the Lord could get to the root memory. After healing prayer, he shared this: “I literally ran almost day and night for almost forty years, trying to find peace. But it never happened until we prayed and I became somebody. My whole life has changed” (p. 63).
Although quiet is closely linked to solitude, we often need help from one another to find it. Interestingly, the fellowship of believers helps us get alone with the Lord and His quiet. As Leanne writes in Heaven’s Calling:
As Western Christendom continues to decline, I meet people all over the world who are desperately searching for those places of deepest quiet, those permeated with the holy because hallowed by the presence of God. There, coming in out of the clamor of the modern world, we can indeed gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, and our prayers as inquiry are quickened. This I found with Fr. Winkler. There was always a quiet in the Sanctuary. One could go in at any time, kneel and feel the hallowedness of all the prayers of the people, all the sacramental blessings over the elements, the anointings for healing and deliverance from oppression and depression, the ever deepening forgiveness of sins. The simplicity and quiet were healing. No noise, no technology apart from lighting and heating, only symbols of the Holy, the sacred, of redemption and resurrection (p. 154).
Faithful believers make places of quiet that bless others. A friend of mine was resting quietly in God’s presence at a chapel service, and a colleague slipped into the pew next to her. As they got up to leave at the conclusion of the service, her colleague turned and said, “Thank you for letting me sit with you. You have such a peace about you, and your quiet really affected me.” Each of us who practices the discipline of silence will be indwelt by God’s own peace, and in turn will carry a contagious quiet to those around us. If we wish to grow in this capacity we need to spend time with others who’ve learned to be quiet, following their lead and drawing on God’s serenity in them.
We help one another practice silence by remaining close enough to lend our support while urging each other to be alone with the Lord. Our God-given need and capacity for quiet isn’t a personality trait that some have and others don’t. We collaborate with the Holy Spirit when we affirm in one another, “Yes, you can rest in God’s presence. Yes, you can wait and listen for His voice.” We interfere with the Lord’s work if we allow anyone to depend on us for solace or calm. As an example, read Lana’s story in chapter four of The Broken Image. Leanne ministered to her by insisting on and leading her into the work of facing what emerged in the quiet and of learning to be in solitude with God.
Silence gives God opportunities to reach the deeper self. He leads us into quiet places in order to mercifully reveal to us what must be known, confessed and healed. At times our encounters with Him are profoundly comforting, and at others He touches on pain or shame for the sake of transforming it. For many of us increasing our contact with quiet requires fortitude. Silence and solitude are closely linked, and our resistance to quiet is often paired with a fear of being alone. But our God is waiting for us in the quiet places, and Henri Nouwen encourages us to enter:
Instead of running away from our loneliness and trying to forget or deny it, we have to protect it and turn it into a fruitful solitude. To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent effort into a garden of solitude. As hard as it is to believe that the dry desolate desert can yield endless varieties of flowers, it is equally hard to imagine that our loneliness is hiding unknown beauty. The movement from loneliness to solitude, however, is the beginning of any spiritual life because it is the movement from the restless senses to the restful spirit, from the outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search, from the fearful clinging to the fearless play (Reaching Out, p. 34-35).
I’ll close here with one final assurance, the most hopeful encouragement I know. Our God took on our flesh and knows intimately the threats and fears we face in the quiet. Recall of the time when an angry crowd brought our Lord a woman they’d caught in sin. Amidst all the clamor and strife, waves of quieting power radiated from Jesus as He silently wrote on the ground. Utterly sure of His Father’s love, He hushed the accusers and set the woman free. This is the One who lives in us, who goes before and behind us. We can call on Him to silence the wind and the waves. As we ask, He will impart to us the gift of divine serenity. Come, Lord Jesus, and reveal our unknown beauty, grant to us the restful spirit, gather us up in Your awesome presence and give us Your peace.
We would love to hear your testimony of how the discipline of silence has yielded fruit in your life. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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