Two collages sit propped before me, born from a striking discovery I made two weeks ago about the word, “refine”: A surprising phrase repeats in its definition: “to free from…”

Equating refinement with getting freed wasn’t something I’d ever considered. Ridding self of something, maybe. Burning away bad stuff, too. But “freeing” sounds too pleasant to go with “refiner’s fire.”

Yet there sit the definitions. And the more I consider, the more fitting I find the word “free.”

I’m also thinking of the “silent retreat” I attended,  which demonstrated how silence can help free us from “unwanted material,” “impurities, “moral imperfection,” and things “vulgar or uncouth.”

So, from what specifically might silence free me?

Words, to start with.

Now, I love words. I’m a word person. I love to write and speak and listen and read… words, words, words. Words are part of God’s image in us; Jesus Himself is “the Word of God.”

But words, like fire, can be dangerous. Bible warnings about them come flying at my head:

“In the multitude of words, sin is not lacking” (Prov 10:19).

“Every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it, in the day of judgment” (Mt 12:36).

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Pro 18: 21)–and death’s mentioned first.

Words can be foolish, sinful, malicious, even deadly. So silence seems a wise safeguard. Of course there are times we must speak (e.g., for justice’s sake), but chances are that sin with our mouth will more likely happen by commission than omission.

We can also hide behind words. Figuring out “the right thing to say” can cover up our lack of understanding or compassion. Chatter can prevent awkward pregnant pauses. Busy-ness talk and light-hearted banter can mask our fear, hurt, uncertainty, or even anger.

But during “37 Hours of Silence” all occasion for mouth-sin, all obligation to say just “the right thing” is swept aside, and for a while we are… free from all that.

This doesn’t imply an anti-social spirit. In fact, one of the things I recalled when free-writing about “refine” was the dining hall where I ate on retreat. Its site, a Christian camp of 100 acres and many buildings, was a busy place that weekend. At least three other groups were gathered there simultaneously with us “Silent Sanctuary” retreaters.

Oddly for a “silent” retreat, the dining room filled with noise as it filled with people. But, remembering it last Friday as I free-wrote about refinement, I imagined how that room might look to a bird’s-eye observer, peeking through a ceiling, say. I wondered how he would answer if asked, “Which tableful of people looks most refined to you?” I felt sure he’d choose one of the “Silent Sanctuary” reserved “quiet tables.” Not that those seated there looked prim and stiff. (At mine we were at one point sharing silent smiles and even giggles.) But there is simply something calmer and more refined about silence, even amid cacophony, than loud laughter wafting across a whole large room, declaring, “I knew there was a catch! Ha ha ha ha ha!”

At chatter-surrounded tables hands as well as lips moved more rapidly, muscles looked tighter, trays even clattered more. No, these other groups weren’t bunches of louts. But sitting at our “quiet table,” I could only think of it as an oasis of calm in a wilderness of noise.

Yes, I’m convinced about it: Silence has refining power, and also gives its own freedom–from the unwanted, unnecessary, rough and unpolished. And loosed from the obligations and distractions of human conversation, the heart can also focus better on conversation with God.

It doesn’t look silent, does it, with all these words? And hidden among them are “simple” and “uncluttered”–which this collage decidedly isn’t. That’s why I did the next one, more sparely and simply.
Even this one could be simplified, have fewer words–and thus be yet more refined.


6 thoughts on “The Refining Power of Silence

  1. Most fascinating observations, Sylvie, and more fruit from your silent retreat. I had truly never made this connection between refinement and freedom–and then you took it a step further to explore how silence had both freed and refined you. I love words, too, and a couple of years ago, gave up words–words to read–during Lent. Oh my. The only words I didn’t relinquish were in the Bible. But giving up my books was wrenching…. at first. And yes, I suppose there was something refining, purifying not to crack a book’s cover for forty days. I learned that I didn’t need them. I have never gone on a silent retreat such as the one you experienced, but if I go to our little cabin in the Missouri woods, alone, then I choose not to talk aloud to myself. 🙂 And even if I don’t put on my Baroque music, I don’t experience complete silence. Nature sings its own songs, but surely, they’re quieter than the cacophony of the city. this is a secular book, but I would really recommend it–Listening Below the Noice: The Transformative Power of Silence by Anne D. LeClaire. Particularly after your discoveries in silence, I think you’d enjoy it. Thank you so much for sharing about your retreat. And I always love your collages.

    1. Some one else I know gave up books one year for Lent. At least she thought she would. She may have changed her mind. That’s really a hard one. But I have thought of such an experiment myself–maybe not for frty days, but for some length of time. I know that even excellent books (and other writings) can rob me by crowding out the Best Book from my time and attention. So I’ve wondered what it would be like to be marooned somewhere with no other book but the Bible. I suspect it would turn out rich, if I gave myself time to learn for sure that i don’t need them.
      I would love to be able to go to a private cabin like that for a real solitude and silence retreat. The hardest, and most important, part for me would curtailing first the talking out loud to myself (yes I do that, too), then all the inner chatter that goes on inside my head, blocking whatever God might be trying to get through to it and my heart.
      I’ve heard of that book, Lynni. I wonder if I sent a sample to my Kindle. Will have to go and check.
      As for “silence” not really being literally that, I have a post ready to publish called “The Texture of Silence.” I think you’ll probably find it interesting.

  2. Oh, and Sylvie, I forgot to say how much I enjoyed your previous post and gorgeous photos of the monarch and chrysalis. I’ve learned such special lessons from them.

    1. So glad you enjoyed it, Lynni. Thanks goes to Christina Moore at Crumbs From His Table for the photos, and videos in the link. Aren’t they exquisite? She does beautiful macrophotography. I hope many people will get to see her chrysalis and butterfly series and watch the actual process of the butterflies emerging.

  3. Such beautiful thoughts on refinement…I never thought of it as “freeing” either! Lovely collages too…an uplifting share and it makes me desire a silent retreat ?

    1. Hi Lynn! Good to see you here!
      I hope you get to attend a good silent retreat sometime. It’s kind of astounding what it can reveal and teach, just the committed silence, and community with other people who seek it, and God. Mine was a long time coming! Now I can’t wait to go to another!

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