Invitation to Solitude and Silence. Experiencing God's Transforming Presence

By Ruth Haley Barton
Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity (2004). 143 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. James Rosscup
16.2 (Fall 2005) : 325-327

This book argues for meditation in silence, clear for example in Ps 62:1, 5, and views this as a great key to a transformed life. Barton’s version of contemplative prayer has some roots in monastic desert reflection, a tradition from the fourth century of the Christian era forward. Elements such as repeating a word or phrase to induce a silent state are akin to pagan Eastern mystic contemplation. Barton does not go as far as the latter; she does not teach the blanking out of the mind (an altered consciousness).

Scripture’s references to silence are parts of a vital, believing life, but not the main, overall catalyst for life blessing that Barton seems to make of these. In the Word, verses on being silent or still (for example, Ps 46:10; Hab 2:20; Zeph 1:7; Zech 2:13) are occasional and may not mean silence per se, but desisting/ceasing from some attitude or action such as frenzy, anxiety, or fretfulness, and trusting the Lord as a refuge and not fearing, as in Ps 46:2 (cf. Gerald Wilson, Psalms, Vol. 1, in The New Application Commentary ([Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002] 721). In contrast to occasional silent prayer, which is needed, overwhelmingly frequent in the Bible is spoken prayer. Barton does not integrate quiet reflection/prayer with other factors in a life of victory. Biblical balance and perspective are missing. What about being led by the Spirit, being built up in God’s Word, speaking prayer in praise/thanks, confession, petition, intercession, affirmation, or witnessing, using one’s gifts to edify others, obediently showing deeds of loving service, giving to God’s causes, and the like?

Barton endorses Thomas Merton, a trappist monk from Kentucky. Before death by accidental electrocution (1968), Merton wrote much to define and back “contemplative” or “centering prayer.” Merton has had a very wide, profound influence on many in Roman Catholic, and even Protestant churches. He articulates his ideas, at length, for example, in his Contemplative Prayer (Garden City, N.Y.: Image Books, Doubleday, 1971). “Centering” in Merton’s sense refers to meditating on Scripture and praying in other forms of prayer such as petition, then using devices such as repeating words to hone into a special meditation. In this, one shuts out and leaves behind all concepts, thoughts, or other uses of the mind. Another tack is to go without prior prayer or meditation and just “center” directly on this state minus thought but stayed on God. This is seen as higher, purer, or superior to meditation/prayer in any regular aspects such as praise/thanks, confession, petition, intercession.

Because of Barton’s lack of clarity, one wonders how far she agrees with this. A problem is that God’s Word never explicitly distinguishes regular meditation from any form of meditation, prayer, or fixation that fosters love, light, or seeing God’s face (some of Merton’s aims). Of course, some cases are distinct from the normal in God’s giving special visions and other venues of supernatural revelation.

A Roman Catholic abbot, M. Basil Pennington, has been an articulator/defender for the Mertonian “centering” (Centering Prayer, Renewing an Ancient Christian Form [New York: Image Books, Doubleday, 1982]; also Centered Living, The Way of Centering Prayer [Liguori, Mo.: Liguori/Triumph, 1999]). This is relevant to evangelicals, for many Protestant churches have bought into contemplative prayer practices, drawing upon some Eastern and monastic features. Richard Foster has argued for what he feels is a valid Protestant version of this “contemplation” in his best-selling Celebration of Discipline (New York: Harper & Row, 1978) and in his Prayer, Finding the Heart’s True Home (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1992). Several other authors express similar views. Those who claim some forms of contemplation/prayer may or may not drift away from a biblical kind of meditation (cf. reviews in this issue of TMSJ on Ray Yungen and Brian Flynn).

Barton’s twelve chapters reason that her main secret for finding rest in body, mind, and soul is in silence as she sees God. Vital silent communion is good, but a wider venue is better. Biblically, a vital godly life is found in a blend of trust, the Spirit’s control, a healthy relation with God’s Word, a refreshing, balanced life of prayer in all its facets, not just in silence. Barton often and at length tells of her exhaustion as a Christian speaker, emptiness of life, sins within herself and against her family, and a need to find a solution. In her mind, answers to her dilemma came from her solitude/silence. But this is a very limited part of what the Bible mentions as components of a healthy prayer, let alone the whole Christian life. Being alone and silent before God took her higher and deeper into enjoying Him, yet that oversimplifies matters.

Another problem is misinterpretations of her main Bible text. On Elijah’s flight from Jezebel to a desert cave, she notes the Lord’s mighty wind, earthquake, and fire, then the “sound of a gentle blowing” (or whisper). To her, the latter is a proof-text for “silence.” That is not all. The silence is within Elijah himself (his meditative practice), rather than an external phenomenon from God just as He caused the first three phenomena. So she casts Elijah here as an example of entering contemplative silence. She allegorizes many other details of 1 Kings 19 throughout the book.

Barton magnifies solitude/silence as her chief resource from God for various special blessings in a godly walk. In true biblical examples, prayer leading to spiritual success is not exclusively in silence, but is the spoken kind. This is true in the Pentateuch, historical books, wisdom books, Psalms, Prophets, Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Revelation. Silence is mentioned (Ps 62:1, 5, for example) and can be helpful, but it is an exception to what is by far the usual case, spoken words. Blessings of godly living are not chiefly or especially from times in silence, as if what happens in such instances is the main or only key.

The authoress also does not show how meditation/prayer in silence integrates in overall balance with aspects of prayer the Bible says the most about. The aspects are such as praise/thanks, confession, petition, intercession, affirmation (e.g., “I will love Thee, O Lord . . .,” Ps 18:1).

The book often has arbitrary claims. One is Barton’s meaning for the biblical “wait” as if this works only in silence (14). In Hebrew thought, to “wait on the Lord” is to trust or hope with patient, expectant reliance, as an attitude of life (Ps 27:14; Isa. 40:31). Of course, one can trust while praying in silence or vocally. A reader can also question Barton’s apparent belief about “demons of desire to perform, to be seen as competent (at least!), productive, culturally relevant, balanced” (18).

The book reflects often about the benefits of solitude and silence. Frequent erroneous and arbitrary opinions, misinterpretations as on Elijah in 1 Kings 19, and the imbalanced importance assigned to silence with no explanation of the content are disturbing. This reviewer cannot recommend the book. True biblical meditation is at its core an absorbing reflection on God, His Word, and life’s aspects. Christians must saturate themselves with all parts of a godly life, including prayer. The great majority of prayers in the Bible are vocal.