Thursday, November 28, 2013

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Silence: Waiting for God’s Word

I go back to the time when it was considered “just normal” for Christians who were serious about knowing God to have some structured silence each day for prayer and meditation. Catholic Christians prayed the Divine Office reflectively as a framework for prayer, and evangelicals would rise early to have a “quiet time” with the Lord (or young mums were encouraged to do it after lunchtime when the toddlers had been put down to sleep). Of course everyone found it a bit of a struggle some of the time. And in the spiritual warfare which is part and parcel of living for Jesus, we were taught that the most successful ploy of our ancient enemy was to persuade us to skip our time of quiet with the Lord. “Seven prayerless days make one weak” may have been a corny way of putting it, but those old fashioned catholic and evangelical teachers knew what they were talking about. I’m astonished to discover that a disciplined approach to this is considered “quaint” at best and “legalistic” at worst by some modern catholic and evangelical clergy. The idea seems to be that we should pray only when we feel like it.

Well, that’s a recipe for disaster in the spiritual life, not to mention the way we forego the blessings we need to survive and overcome our difficulties. Intimacy with the Lord, waiting on his Word, knowing the healing power of his presence, are just as important today as they ever were.

Reading the Scriptures or rattling through the Divine Office mentally from an iPhone on a crowded train or bus when on a journey or when called out to an emergency is better than not doing it at all. Indeed, I’ve occasionally resorted to that myself! But I know clergy who now routinely read the Office and Scriptures in that way, without ever really drawing aside into silence in order reverently to prepare for receiving the Word, and so to allow the Lord to impact our hearts and minds afresh. 

Here is a passage from Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) about this. It is taken from page 12 of God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas, an anthology of devotions drawn from his writings which takes us thematically through Advent and Christmas, from waiting and mystery to redemption, incarnation, and joy. (Most of the reflections in the book were written by Bonhoeffer during his two year imprisonment which came to an end when he was hanged in 1945 for his opposition to Hitler and the Third Reich. In fact, he had written to a friend that “Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent . . . one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other – things that are really of no consequence – the door is shut, and can only be opened from the outside.”)

We are silent in the early hours of each day, because God is supposed to have the first word, and we are silent before going to sleep, because to God also belongs the last word. We are silent solely for the sake of the word, not in order to show dishonour to the word but in order to honour and receive it properly. Silence ultimately means nothing but waiting for God’s word and coming away blessed by God’s word . . . Silence before the word, however, will have its effect on the whole day. If we have learned to be silent before the word, we will also learn to be economical with silence and speech throughout the day. There is an impermissible self-satisfied, prideful, offensive silence. This teaches us that what is important is never silence in itself. The silence of the Christian is a listening silence, a humble silence that for the sake of humility can also be broken at any time. It is a silence in connection with the word ... ln being quiet there is a miraculous power of clarification, of purification, of bringing together what is important. This is a purely profane fact. Silence before the word, however, leads to the right hearing and thus also to the right speaking of the word of God at the right time. A lot that is unnecessary remains unsaid.


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