There’s a painfully awkward dinner scene in one of my favorite movies, When Harry Met Sally. After a brief, uncomfortable silence, Harry looks up after several moments of loudly chewing his salad and says, “It is so nice when you can sit with someone and not have to talk.” Sally gives him a smirk in response, clearly not returning the sentiment. I am a lot like Sally in this. I prefer talking over quiet. Many would say I have a “loud personality” — or at least, I always have a lot to say. They wouldn’t be wrong.

For years, this characterized my relationship with God. I loved the parts of Scripture where God was speaking through prophets or making huge displays of power. I heard the story about Elijah and how God was not in the wind or the fire or the earthquake but in the “soft whisper of a voice” (1 Kgs 19:12). But I always felt like God and I had an agreement: that He would speak loudly to me, burning-bush style. 

And I always had a lot to say to God. I filled journals and journals with prayers, and spent hours of my “quiet time” not being very quiet at all — listening to podcasts, worship music, or talking with someone about a passage of Scripture. I always preferred it this way, and it had been working for me for most of my life.

Up until recently. As we’re all aware, 2020 (The-Year-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named) was a doozy. Curveball after curveball was thrown — none of us were prepared for what hit us. Whether it was a global pandemic or a personal family crisis, political unrest or isolation and fear, we all endured some serious gut punches last year. 

After a series of unexpected personal devastations last year, I was left with a stewing bitterness at the Lord; I had so many questions, and I wanted answers. Why did these things happen to me? How could He allow this pain? What was it all for? 

Instead of answers, I was met with silence.

All the typical ways I connected with God weren’t “working” — no worship song or devotional. No conversation with a spiritual mentor, Scripture passage, or sermon. Not even journaling or my attempts to pray. I felt like I was shouting into the proverbial earthquake and the fire and the wind, waiting for the gentle whisper, but instead getting nothing. 

Desperate to try anything to connect with God, I signed up for a silent retreat at a Jesuit retreat center in my city. I had heard about it from a few friends and had always wanted to try it. I figured, if God was being silent, I would give Him the silent treatment and see how that worked. 

Upon arrival, I checked in and received my orientation packet for the three-night retreat — the only items on the schedule being breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and a brief meeting each day with a spiritual director. Except during the meeting with the director, you were expected to be silent at all times. At mealtimes in my assigned seat, I sat across from a fellow retreatant with whom I never spoke, exchanging only smiles and head nods. My dorm-style room where I stayed was simply furnished, with a bed, a chair, a lamp, and a simple bathroom. Around the property, there were a hiking trail, a library, and several indoor and outdoor sitting areas. And there was silence. Lots of silence.

In the recent film Sound of Metal, Ruben Stone is a heavy metal drummer and former heroin addict who loses his hearing (spoilers ahead). He finds support at a program for deaf addicts and goes through the uncomfortable experience of learning to be deaf. Upon his arrival, the manager of this deaf community, Joe, gives him a challenge: Sit in a room alone in silence.

This proves to be very difficult for Ruben, and boy, do I relate. Entering the retreat, I thought the hardest part of the retreat would be the prohibition of speaking. But it’s actually easy to be quiet; the challenge is truly embracing silence. I became so aware of my desire (read: addiction) to fill the silence — to listen to music, watch a TV show, or scroll my phone — anything to distract me from the silence.

Yet all of those distractions were taken from me. I spent literal hours sitting alone, quietly. Just waiting. At first, I went to God in prayer, asking Him all the questions I had. I pored over Scripture passages waiting for something to click. I wanted this retreat to be a spiritual chiropractic adjustment, getting my spiritual spine back in line so I could start living my faith again the way it used to be.

Similarly, in the film, Ruben is constantly battling with the reality of his deafness, seeking to restore his hearing. He sells everything he has to get an expensive operation that will restore his hearing — yet when he tells Joe the news, instead of sharing in the joy, Joe is disappointed. He asks Ruben through sign language, “All these mornings you’ve been sitting in my study, sitting: have you had any moments of stillness? … For me, those moments of stillness: that place, that’s the kingdom of God. And that place will never abandon you.”

The whole time I was at the silent retreat, I was waiting for God to say something, to speak like He did to the prophets, to shake the ground and light a bush on fire, to speak like He has to me before. And all that time, God was waiting for me to be quiet. To just be with Him. To sit and enjoy His presence. They say the sign of a good relationship is being able to sit quietly together, and yet in all my sitting at the retreat, I had never found that rest. Sure, I was quiet, not speaking, and I was sitting, not moving, but yet my heart and mind were still as noisy and busy as ever. 

When God went silent, I kept filling the space with more noise — more of my own thoughts, prayers, and anxieties. But when I finally responded to God’s silence with my own, I got a glimmer of what He may have been trying to show me all along: that His silence is not a punishment but a gift. A precious gift in the world where so many other voices are constantly vying for my attention; in a world where words are constantly manipulated and misunderstood. In the silence of God, the truth of God broke through louder than ever before: Emmanuel. God with you. 

Sound of Metal makes a moving declaration that there is a difference between silence and stillness. In its final scene, Ruben makes peace with the silence, finally finding stillness in it. The last morning of my retreat, I found a bench on the walking trail and sat. I was quiet. I was silent. I was still. And I found the Kingdom of God there.