How I learned to shut up and be quiet

It’s been nearly two months since I retired (and longer than that since I posted anything here).

At first I traveled a bit – to Morocco and Iceland, two countries which could not be more different from each other and which, believe me, required some careful packing. But mostly, since arriving back in the U.S., I have tried to shut up and be quiet.

After 40 years of talking – blah, blah, blah – I was weary with the sound of my own voice. But turning off the noise and easing into a world with little talk has been surprisingly difficult.

Toward the end of my useful life as a preacher I was genuinely puzzled that anyone would get up early on Sunday morning and come out to hear me preach. I would look out from the pulpit, and I was pretty sure I knew what my congregation was thinking: “I wish that guy up front would just shut up and be quiet, and maybe let God speak for a change.”

So, that’s what I’ve done. I shut up so that maybe God would speak. And I’ve turned down the volume on a lot of other voices too, not just my own.

I get up early, as I always have (some things never change). I go to an exercise class nearly every day and sweat my brains out. I go to church (and sit in the back). I read (a lot). I take the dog on such long walks that she doesn’t hurry to the door anymore when she sees me get up. And I live in a remote area, at least 20 minutes (by car) from anything. The summer will bring a beach crowd, of course, but for now things are … well, quiet. I can hear the wind in the trees and the waves on Lake Michigan, and not much else.

The most basic spiritual practice, the starting point for a spiritual life, is to be quiet. I didn’t learn this earlier in my life because the Christian people I grew up with didn’t mess around with spiritual practices. For them memorizing (and sometimes reciting) the Heidelberg Catechism was just about the best spiritual formation a person could have. Mostly that turned out to be a good spiritual formation for me.

But later in life I have come to see the value in having something more, something involving fewer words.

Better Christians than I discovered long ago that being quiet is, in fact, a prerequisite for coming to know God. Being quiet is an act of faith precisely because when you do it you aren’t quite sure that anything will come of it.

It was Ignatius of Loyola, the 16th century theologian and founder of the Jesuit order, who developed a way of praying that’s called the Daily Examen. This simple spiritual exercise has become my daily routine. It has brought me all the way back to the beginning, and this is where I need to be for right now:

  • Becoming aware of God’s presence
  • Reviewing the day with gratitude
  • Paying attention to my feelings
  • Asking God for forgiveness (the most time-consuming part of the exercise)
  • Looking forward to tomorrow

So, please accept my apologies if I have not answered your emails promptly. I need to leave now for a walk.

Sadly, the dog may die from exhaustion.

(Note: If you’re wondering why I had a haircut in the Medina of Marrakech, google “unusual things to do in Marrakech.” Haircut, shave, lotions, scalp and facial massage, warm towel, all administered with a lot of showmanship – only 60 Moroccan dirhams, or less than seven U.S. dollars. A bargain.)

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

3 Responses to How I learned to shut up and be quiet

  1. Phil Goodchild March 21, 2018 at 12:12 pm #

    Doug, your post caught my eye. First, because I am very recently retired myself, and just beginning to develop a new rhythm to my days and weeks. But second because I became a member of a Quaker Meeting about a year ago. While the Meeting I attend with Deb in Indianapolis is “programmed” worship, meaning there’s a message from a pastor (in contrast to the “unprogrammed” worship of other Meetings with no pastoral staff), the heart of Quaker worship is “waiting worship.” That is, waiting in silence for God’s voice. I have heard many exceptional sermons in my life, a disproportionate number of them from you in Wheaton, and owe much of my own spiritual formation to the studied words of trained ministers. But only in the last couple of years have I learned the value of silent worship in trying to hear God speak to me. And by shutting up, I’m better able to reach for the best in myself and answer that of God in everyone else.

    All that said, I’ve appreciated your blog posts over the years and do hope they’ll continue whenever you feel moved to speak in less than book-length utterances. Though the books are great, too.

    Welcome home to Michigan.

    Phil Goodchild

  2. Kathleen/Greg Bostrom March 24, 2018 at 10:56 pm #

    It sounds as though you are finding and nurturing a good place to be. I don’t think anyone ever cringed when you got up to preach, however! 😉 I love the Examen and often teach it to others and then forget to use it myself. Thank you for the reminder. And I think I’ll send Greg to Morocco. He’s been putting up with my home-done haircuts for 36 years!

    Bless you, Doug, and keep thinking, writing. . . and speaking.

    • Doug March 27, 2018 at 2:09 pm #

      The barber here in Holland tells me that the guy in Marrakech didn’t do such a good job. But maybe all barbers criticise each other’s work. In any case, Greg would enjoy a haircut in Marrakech – quite an experience! One of the barbers in the Medinah advertised himself as “The Cut-throat Barber” which, I must say, got me thinking during my shave. 🙂 Bless you, Kathy. And greetings to Greg.