Are We Willing to Learn Silence?

This morning, as part of my devotional reading, I started making my way through a Henri Nouwen classic called Desert Wisdom: Sayings from the Desert Fathers.

I’ve been meaning to read this book for a while, as I always enjoy learning more about the desert fathers and mothers and their wisdom. Also, the book includes calligraphic renderings of the sayings on each page, and I have come to really value books that combine prayerful words and artistic meditations. Somehow the artwork invites the words on the page to sink deeper into my heart. (Thomas Merton’s Dialogues with Silence is another great example of this kind of book.)

So this morning I started reading this book on the desert fathers, and I was startled to discover the following story and its accompanying image on page 5: 

It was said about Abba Agathon that for three years he carried a pebble around in his mouth until he learned to be silent.


It was surprising enough to encounter the notion of someone carrying a pebble inside their mouth for three years. Wouldn’t it break their teeth? I imagined the pebble inside his mouth, pushed off to the side and stored next to his cheek as some kind of ongoing reminder of this discipline he’s adopted to learn silence.

But then I saw the image. 

Do you see the pebble in the image above — the way it’s placed between his lips? 

It would make talking impossible.

And that got me thinking.

If I had something sitting between my lips like that for three minutes — much less three years! — I wouldn’t be able to speak at all in that time. I would be forced to listen. 

I could see myself, for example, standing in the front room of my house in the evenings when my husband gets home, standing right next to our farm room table where we eat dinner each night as I listened to him share about his day. I could see myself standing there with a pebble between my lips, listening to him.

I would be truly listening in that moment, not reacting or having an opinion or chiming in with my own thoughts.

I can see how, over time, this kind of discipline would cultivate a posture of listening that becomes more and more second nature. I can see how it would form us into people who honor those before us as persons who have words to say worth hearing. I can see how it would create greater room for them to share their thoughts and dreams and opinions and experiences without attending to interruptions or another person’s thoughts, words, or opinions in the midst of their own sharing.

Perhaps people would begin to feel the greater worth of their personhood because they experienced our intent to truly hear them rather than have anything necessary to say or add. Perhaps they would feel the space around their personhood enlarge, giving them room to speak more honestly and openly and with a greater degree of vulnerability and truth.

What would it be like to live this way? What would it be like to quiet the urgency within us that wants to speak at every turn and have something we think needs saying? What would it be like to become people of silence instead?

Would you value becoming this sort of person?