Silence vs. Solitude

Mary Carmen EnglertBy Mary Carmen Englert9 Minutes

Excerpt taken from Seven Pathways: Ancient Practices for a Deeper Relationship with God by Mary Carmen Englert


In the most basic sense, silence is the absence of sound, yet in a spiritual sense, silence is much more. It is one of the mysteries of Christianity and an invitation to retreat with God. God commands us in Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God” (NIV). This is not a suggestion but a command from God. His commands are always for our good. It is a call to practice habitual stillness of the whole being—heart, mind, and body—before God.

So, as a pathway to deeper relationship with God, silence has three aspects: quiet surroundings, a quiet self, and an open heart. Solitude means being in a still place, keeping silent, and listening for the voice of God.

While closely connected in their practices, silence and solitude are slightly different. Dr. Charles Stone, lead pastor of West Park Church in London, Ontario, graduate in Mind, Brain, and Teaching from John Hopkins University and currently pursuing a PhD in researching stress in pastors, differentiates the two as follows:

• Solitude: “The practice of temporarily being absent from other people (in isolation or anonymity) and other things so that you can be present with God. It’s not loneliness nor is it getting away from people . . . .” It’s about positioning our bodies so that we can connect with God.

• Silence: “The practice of voluntarily and temporarily abstaining from speaking so that certain spiritual goals might be sought. It’s about what we do with our tongues, what we say.”49

Contrasted with solitude, practicing silence also necessitates active listening––of attuning our heart to the presence of God. Both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Thomas Merton inextricably link the two, silence and solitude, as companions for spiritual discipline.50

In his book Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, Henri Nouwen speaks to the need to move “from loneliness to solitude.”51 He differentiates the two primarily in the internal disposition toward contentment. Loneliness is an aching––the most universal of human suffering52––that we seek to avoid at all costs.

Bonhoeffer’s vivid portrait of human aversion to being alone is just as ubiquitous in our culture:

We are so afraid of silence that we chase ourselves from one event to the next in order not to have to spend a moment alone with ourselves, in order not to have to look at ourselves in the mirror. . . . We are afraid of such lonely, awful encounters with God, and we avoid them, so that he may not suddenly come too near to us.53

Solitude is an aloneness coupled with the contentment to sit with oneself. Henri David Thoreau’s insights, though written well before the ubiquitous influences of technology, are especially true of our social media, FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) culture. In the excerpt below Henri Nouwen uses this quote of Thoreau’s to portray our culture (swap “the post office” for “Twitter”):

When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip. We rarely meet a man who can tell us any news which he has not read in a newspaper, or been told by his neighbor; and, for the most part, the only difference between us and our fellow is that he has seen the newspaper, or been out to tea, and we have not. In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters proud of his extensive correspondence has not heard from himself this long while.54

Yikes! The man (or woman) “who walks away with the greatest number of letters” (or likes, retweets, and shares) and feels gratified by them has failed in the inward cultivation that can only be developed in solitude and silence. Who is living from the inside out, and who is watching others live? Our culture is the most connected at all times but the loneliest.

Nouwen adds that “by attentive living, we can learn the difference between loneliness and solitude. When you are alone in an office, a house or an empty waiting room, you can suffer from restless loneliness but also enjoy a quiet solitude.”55 Through attentive and active listening in solitude to God, we cultivate the inner life that is grounded on the Rock, which is Jesus, and we drink from His life-giving waters as we commune with Him.

Psychological Benefits of Silence

As with thankfulness, silence offers a host of practical benefits in addition to spiritual growth. By reducing noise pollution in your life, you promote relaxation and lower stress. Relaxation activates the brain’s hippocampus, which is crucial for building memories and fostering quality decision making and empathy. In growing children and teenagers, the space to reflect and think deeply actually contributes to greater brain growth as well as personal and interpersonal satisfaction.56 Consequently, the overall benefits for practicing silence especially for child and adolescent development is far-reaching.

According to Psychology Today, there are ten reasons why silence produces psychological and physiological benefits. Silence—

1. Stimulates brain growth. At least two hours of silence has proven to yield the growth of new brain cells aiding in learning and memory.
2. Reduces the influx of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.
3. De-stresses and calms your whole being.
4. Produces more enhanced sleep at night.
5. Reduces undesirable health issues like heart disease and tinnitus.
6. Produces greater self-awareness and reflection, leading to better decision making.
7. Produces better focus.
8. Enhances one’s ability to be creative, to fantasize, and to daydream.
9. Allows a person to be able to prioritize better.
10. Causes us to know when to speak and when to remain silent (allowing us to avoid more foolish “foot in mouth” moments).57

The practice of silence is a vital pathway for cultivating your relationship with God. It’s also a great way to improve your physical and psychological health, not to mention your work and
social relationships.

49 Charles Stone, “8 Benefits of Silence and Solitude.” OutreachMagazine.Com (blog), July 26, 2018.
50 Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. 20th anniversary ed., 3rd ed., rev. Ed. (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1998), 98.
51 Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975), 13.
52 Nouwen, 15.
53 Dietrich Bonhoeffer and David McI Gracie, Meditating on the Word. 2nd ed. (Cambridge, Mass: Cowley Publications, 2000), 50.
54 Nouwen, 18.
55 Nouwen, 25.
56 Yelena Moroz Alpert,“Shh…How a Little Silence Can Go a Long Way For Kids’ Mental Health.” National Geographic (blog), September 10, 2021.
57 Atalanta Beaumont, “10 Reasons Why Silence Really Is Golden,” April 21, 2017.

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