One of the biggest pet peeves of sauna lovers is when a casual sauna visitor wanders in, leaving the door wide open, allowing the precious heat to escape. Baking in a sauna was one of my dad’s favorite pastimes, and I remember him growling at people who didn’t seem to realize that his carefully cultivated heat would diminish while they wandered in and slowly looked around.
Whether you love pouring water on sauna rocks until the temperature rises to dizzying heights or not, there is a powerful truth inside the imagery.
We live in an incredibly wordy world, where people talk incessantly, and in contrast to this, one of the classic spiritual disciplines is silence. Silence is like a sauna that protects the fire within.
The late Henri Nouwen said that “Silence guards the inner heat of religious emotions. This inner heat is the life of the Holy Spirit within us. Thus, silence is the discipline by which the inner fire of God is tended and kept alive.”
How many times have you said things you regretted, and wished you could take back words that escaped from your lips? Those moments often leave us with feelings of hollowness or an inner defeat.
Practicing silence is a way of keeping the sauna door closed. It gives us space to test—or refine—our thoughts before we express them. When I say things that I regret, I feel depleted, and sometimes embarrassed. But when I pause first, or perhaps say nothing at all, I have a chance to test my thoughts before blurting them out as words. This silence allows me to examine the quality of what I am about to say. If speak too soon, I live with the fallout of my words, but by pausing first, I can discern whether my speech—my observations, insights, jokes, or criticisms—are worth saying.
Silence provides a moment to identify the motivations behind our words. Are we about to utter a cheap joke that might be too caustic or critical? Is there any prideful ambition behind what we are about to say? Are we saying something that will positively add to the moment, or are we simply talking to brag or make ourselves look good? If we speak too quickly, we lose the opportunity to speak intentionally, but if we pause, it allows an inner heat to build that can reveal the character quality of our words.
This isn’t a new idea. In the 5th century AD, the spiritual mystic, Diadochus of Photiki, used this same metaphor. He said, “When the door of the steambath is continually left open, the heat inside rapidly escapes through it; likewise, the soul, in its desire to say many things, dissipates its remembrance of God through the door of speech, even though everything it says may be good. Timely silence, then, is precious, for it is nothing less than the mother of the wisest thoughts.”
This is an issue that I am trying to improve. And in a world where many people are quick to talk, perhaps we could benefit from a little more silence. Perhaps, if we kept the sauna door closed, we could eventually speak words that add healing and peace to the people who will hear them.
“The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” (Proverbs 12:18)
 Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (HarperOne, 1981), 17.
 Ibid., 17.