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Fasting from words

Lynne Baab • Friday October 11 2019

Fasting from words

Last Friday morning was stressful. The stress originated Thursday afternoon, when for some unknown reason, I felt so tired I couldn’t make myself exercise as I normally do on Thursday afternoon. I took a long nap, something I almost never do, and I was so groggy the rest of the afternoon and evening that I couldn’t do anything productive.

By the time I got to my desk on Friday morning, I had an hour to get through a list of small tasks before I needed to get out on my bicycle, to make up for the lost exercise on Thursday. As I settled into work, a relative called, and I knew I needed to take that call. It took up most of that hour.

When I set out on my bicycle an hour later, my brain was full of things to do. My 50 minute ride is beautiful: along Lake Washington, around Seward Park, then back home along the lake. You can see one of the views on my ride in the illustration for this post. 

For the first 30 minutes of my ride last Friday, I tried to see the beauty but my mind was stuck on a hamster wheel. “I need to do this. Then I need to do that. And then I need to  . . .”

Somewhere around the 30 minute mark, those words stopped and I heard some birds. I’m quite sure the birds had been there all along, but finally I heard them. And I heard the wind in the leaves. I smelled the freshness of the air. Finally, I saw and appreciated the colors of the lake and trees and mountains and sky.

Nature heals and soothes us in so many ways. One of them, I realized Friday, is that nature often provides a brief respite from words.

Various forms of silence have been a part of Christian spirituality for centuries, including centering prayer, meditation on scripture, walking a labyrinth, breath prayer, and silent retreats. Many Christians find some or all of those forms of silent prayer to be intimidating. I wonder what would happen if we called them a fast from words.

Fasting from words can take several forms that I thought of after my bike ride Friday:

  • stopping reading (as I had to do a few weeks ago for a whole week, which I wrote about here)
  • stopping speaking aloud
  • stopping listening to spoken words
  • listening to music without words
  • doing our best to stop the flow of words in our heads

Fasts usually range in time from a few hours to forty days. Obviously a fast from food usually needs to last longer than an hour or two because we usually go that long without eating every day. In contrast, I think a fast from words could be as short as an hour to have benefit.

I’ll repeat the definition of Christian fasting I used in my book on fasting: the voluntary denial of something for a specific time, for a spiritual purpose, by an individual, family, community or nation. What might be the spiritual purpose of a fast from words?

Seattle Symphony recently hired a new music director, a Swedish man named Thomas Dausgaard. In an interview in the Seattle Times, he said,

 “I really need silence. Silence is very important; it’s when we feel in contact with ourselves. I can only do music on the background of silence. I’ve been privileged all my life that my family has a place in Sweden that is far away from everything. Just thinking of it, I know it is there, and that I can get to a place where I can hear even the most quiet things. Then I feel connected to something deep inside — how we must have felt thousands of years ago. It awakens that alertness in me which I love.”

Dausgaard is not speaking from a Christian point of view, but he highlights things that contribute to a spiritual purpose for silence or fasting from words: a connection with ourselves, a connection with something deep inside, hearing quiet things, and being alert. When I pursue those goals, I experience God’s presence with me and in me.

This week, give it a try. Fast from words for an hour at some point. You can decide among the options – fast from the written word, the spoken word, whatever form you want to try. “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (Habakkuk 2:20). “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

Next week: why fasting matters in 2019. Illustration: Mount Rainier from Seward Park, one of the beautiful views of Mount Rainier on my bike ride, by Dave Baab. I welcome new subscribers. Sign up below and you'll get an email when I post on this blog.

Some previous posts on silent forms of prayer

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