I’d like to write about something that, by its very nature, defies language. If I could, I would hand you a blank page, filled with it. I would bring you to an open field and sit with you, unspeaking.

But this is an article, which means I must do my best to reach you with the clumsy tools I have available. I must write about the unspeakable: silence.

Silence has become significant to me in recent years. During a time in my life when I’ve experienced spiritual dryness, depression, and a general lack of direction, silence has become a steady companion. I’ve learned to be more aware of its presence, as well as its absence, and to be more hospitable to its arrival.

I’ve also spent a lot of time avoiding it. At times, God’s silence has been so unflinching, I’ve screamed in anger. I’ve prayed and cried and listened, craning heavenward for the merest whisper of direction or consolation—even just a sense that someone is with me. And many, many times, for stretches of weeks or even months, I’ve heard nothing.

God’s silence—really, all silence—puts me in touch with my innate helplessness, highlighting all the things I do to maintain control. With words, I can explain myself, defend myself, and communicate my needs. But in silence, I feel uncomfortable and vulnerable.

I know I’m not alone in this. In a 2010 homily, Pope Benedict XVI noted:

“We live in a society in which it seems that every space, every moment must be ‘filled’ with projects, activities, and noise; there is often no time even to listen or to converse. Dear brothers and sisters, let us not fear to create silence, within and outside ourselves, if we wish to be able not only to become aware of God’s voice but also to make out the voice of the person beside us, the voices of others.”

I like that line: “let us not fear to create silence.” Because fear is the issue—at least for me. I’m afraid of silence, so I stack my calendar with meetings and events that will ensure I never have to face the quiet of my living room.

But no one can avoid silence forever. There are still those moments, at the end of a long day, when my house dims and quiets, and I find myself alone with my thoughts. In those moments I get to choose: flee or stay?

If I decide to flee there are endless escape routes. I can turn on a podcast, or invite a friend over, or do some late-night work. The moment passes, and I move on with my noisy, anxious days. But if I choose to stay…

The silence lingers. Shy as a wild animal, it hovers at the outskirts of my awareness. As I breathe and listen and resist the urge to do literally anything else, I feel silence growing in the room, settling in, making itself at home. I’m here with it, and it’s here with me. We’re not going anywhere.

I am a writer, which means that I spend a lot of time thinking about words, their meaning, their uses. I’m also familiar with their limitations. At the fringes of experience—in deepest pain or deepest joy—words fail, and we’re struck mute by forces beyond our control. In these moments, silence can become a balm. 

“There is not a word on my tongue,” the psalmist writes, “yet you know it altogether” (Psalm 139:4).

 There are things I can’t find the words to say: in silence, they find expression. The silence of a friend’s touch on my arm. The silence of my room when I stop praying and simply sit. The silence of God, when I search for answers and receive only the assurance that he’s with me. In life’s many silences, which will become familiar and cherished if I make room for them, God hears me, and I hear him.

And then I flee again. I still avoid silence most of the time, and my soul is restless as a result. But even then, in all my busy wanderings, God’s silent presence carries me and preserves me. He is present with me, even when I don’t feel present to him.

“Silence is not an absence,” Cardinal Robert Sarah  writes in his masterful work, The Power of Silence. “On the contrary, it is a manifestation of a presence.”

 With time I’m learning to welcome this presence. Like any spiritual discipline, the practice of silence is slow work that requires patience and persistence. At first, saturated as we are by the noise and activity of modern life, we might only be able to endure five minutes at a time. But our capacity can grow if we’re intentional, especially if we take advantage of practical helps. 

Silence doesn’t require a monkish cell. When we’re unsure of where to start, we can quietly stroll our neighborhoods, sit with trusted friends without feeling the need for constant conversation, or find beautiful places that invite us to slow down.

This is hard work—but rewarding. We’ve all known those people who have cultivated inner quietude, such that it becomes a gift to those around them. Their generous souls, still and expansive as an alpine lake, make space for us to be at home. Our souls settle in their presence. 

I would like to cultivate that kind of presence in my own life, silence like cool water within me. If I make a practice of it, I could carry that silence with me into anxious places. It would be a gift.