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.