Two of the essential spiritual disciplines within the Spiritual Formation Movement are the overlapping ones of solitude and silence. Ruth Haley Barton, who writes extensively on such subjects and is the founder of the Transforming Center which is devoted to spiritual formation through the means of contemplative practices, does a good job in this volume of describing exactly what is meant by silence and solitude by those who teach spiritual formation. On the positive side Barton calls her readers to occasionally slow down, disengage, and rest in the Lord. Coupled with meditation on the Word and prayer this is good counsel to us all, especially in the overly busy, constantly running and production-oriented world in which we live. But she miscues early on by confusing silence with God’s presence, “We are starved for quiet, to hear the sound of sheer silence that is the presence of God Himself” (p. 19). However silence, in and of itself, does not draw anyone closer to the presence of God. In addition, Barton is angling for “a silence like no other [which] suddenly happens. There may even be a physical sensation, a vibration, a vision or a voice” (p. 110). Nothing in Scripture or experience would back up such a statement.
As Barton identifies solitude and silence, she goes far beyond the above mentioned needs for rest and meditation on the things of the Lord. The goal of these disciplines is to quiet the soul in order to hear the voice of God. Barton uses Elijah as her biblical model and at every step she mutilates, misinterprets and misapplies his story as found in 1 Kings 19. For example she tells us, “Elijah’s willingness to enter into solitude and silence opened room for God to minister to him in ways he had not yet experienced” (p. 19). Even a cursory reading of the account finds that Elijah had no desire to enter into solitude and silence as Barton describes it. He was running for his life from Jezebel, depressed and ready to give up entirely on his ministry. God graciously reached out and restored His prophet, but Elijah wasn’t looking for an experience with God found in silence and solitude.
More importantly, Barton uses Elijah as an example of one to whom God spoke, yet her prime biblical suspect does not fit her paradigm. In the discipline she is promoting, God supposedly speaks to us without words. She quotes M. Basil Pennington as saying, “If we invite him with attention, opening the inner spaces with silence, he will speak to our souls, not in words or concepts, but in the mysterious way that Love express itself—by presence” (p. 35). This is the running theme throughout the book. Thomas Merton is quoted, “The deepest level of communication is not communication but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and beyond speech, and it is beyond concept” (p. 111). Yet we find in Scripture when God communicated to Elijah He did so with audible words.
Barton tells of times when God has spoken to her specifically (e.g. p. 101), but this begs the question, and she knows it, of how one knows the voice of God when she hears it (p. 118). The author never really answers this question retreating first to assumptions, “One of the basic assumptions of the Christian life is that God does communicate with us through the Holy Spirit” (p. 118). Why she assumes that the Holy Spirit speaks to the Christian directly is not explained and the inner voice of God that she is championing is never once found in any scriptural account. Yet Barton promises us “through practice and experience we become familiar with the tone of God’s voice [and] we learn to recognize God’s voice” (p. 119). Since this really doesn’t answer the question she assures us that “it takes experience and practice” (p. 122). Therefore, in order to support an unwarranted and biblically indefensible idea that God speaks to us apart from Scripture and often without words in our inner being (see pp. 72-74), the best that Barton can offer is that eventually we will be able to discern God’s voice from our own – just keep practicing. This is disappointing at best. But to make things worse, apparently God is speaking to us all the time and we are obligated to obey what He says (p.123). This puts an unsustainable burden on those who accept Barton’s ideas since they must not only hear the inner, wordless voice of God, they must also obey it – or, of course they are in sin.
The technique that Barton recommends, among others, that supposedly leads us into silence in such a way as to hear the voice of God, is through the use of a mantra (pp. 39-41). She tells her readers to “ask for a simple prayer,” such as “Here I am,” or “Come, Lord Jesus.” She writes, “It is best if the prayer is no more than six or eight syllables so that it can be prayed very naturally in the rhythm of your breathing…Pray this prayer several times as an entry into silence and also as a way of dealing with distractions” (p. 41). Mantras have an important role in all forms of mysticism and it does so here as well.
Silence and solitude, as normally understood, play a vital role in the life of a believer. But as outlined and explained in Invitation to Solitude and Silence, silence and solitude are an invitation to a mystical approach to God, not a biblical one.