Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of August 28, 2000
God is found amidst silence
By BISHOP FRED HENRY
"Be still and know that I am God" (Psalms 46:10). In mystical tradition one is constantly reminded that "there is nothing so like God as silence" and "the very best and noblest attainment in this life is to be silent and let God work and speak within."
In 1 Kings (19:11-13), Elijah has aroused the enmity of the evil queen, Jezebel. She threatens to kill him because of his prophesying. Frightened and discouraged, he goes a day's journey into the wilderness and lies down to die. But the angel of the Lord feeds him and leads him to Mount Horeb to speak to the Lord. We are told that he stood upon the mountain waiting.
"Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains, and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still, small voice."
In the NRSV "still, small voice" is rendered as "a sound of sheer silence."
Elijah heard the Lord's healing word to him, but only when he was able to hear that "still, small voice." God speaks in silences, and only those who are quiet of heart can hear what he says.
The underlying reality is that there is no friendship with God without silence. This "silence" does not mean merely keeping noise levels low; it is the condition of pure truthfulness.
Unless one has learned to stop, be quiet and listen to another, then one remains locked in one's own little world, of which one is the centre and the only real inhabitant. In silence we make the wonderful and liberating discovery that we are not gods, but just creatures.
Silence can disturb and frighten people. This is the silence of the women confronted by the empty tomb, who "said nothing to anyone because they were afraid." It is the silence with which we exclude the utterly unexpected, the new, the unthinkable. It is the silence by which I shut out unwelcome words which may rob me of peace of mind.
Consequently, we often conclude that silence is an unnatural void, to be filled as quickly as possible with speech, music or other noise.
However, there is also the silence of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, as they listen to the Lord as he expounds the Scriptures to them. Then they say nothing, but afterwards they exclaim "Did not our hearts burn within us, as he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?" This is the silence that opens up to be astonished by the novelty of the God of surprises.
How can we rediscover such a silence on ourselves? In my experience there is no other way than simply taking the time to be silent in God's presence every day. This is the discipline that I have sought and evaded, attained and let slip for more years that I care to remember. In prayer I seem to spend too much time thinking of food, faxes and what's going on around me.
Unfortunately, for many of us, it seems to be the rule rather than the exception that when we sit down to pray in silence, we often have trouble leaving our work behind. Distractions flood our minds; our conscious thoughts are filled with wave after wave of conflicts, decisions, problems, and worries.
So when a quiet moment comes and we sit before the Lord, what comes to mind may not be a pious thought or a feeling of praise. It is more likely to be concern about sick employees, family members, worry about finding money to pay bills, or thoughts on solving a thorny problem without alienating anyone. Under these circumstances, prayer may seem frustrating and discouraging, if not downright impossible.
In such a state, the story of the pole captures our difficulties and suggests the beginning of a solution.
A man had served God very well and in reward God offered him a servant who would fulfill all his wishes. The servant was amazing. He would do anything he was asked swiftly and efficiently. Very shortly the man had everything he could wish. The only thing he wanted now was a quiet life to be able to enjoy it all.
He discovered, however, that the servant had a couple of drawbacks. First, you could not send him away. Secondly, he was incapable of resting. He was continually demanding more tasks to perform. Eventually the roles were reversed and the man was in flight from the servant, who pursued him from morning till night for the next job.
When the man went back to God to beg him to withdraw the servant, God offered him a way to keep the servant and enjoy the benefits. He told the man to go to the forest and cut down a tree, strip it and erect it as a pole in the courtyard of his house with a rope tied to the top.
Then whenever he had no job for the servant he should instruct him to hold the rope and run up and down the pole until such time as he was needed. It worked. Both the servant and the man were happy.
The servant is the mind. It is insatiable and hungry for thought and sensation. It cannot rest. Unsatisfied, it will turn on its master and devour him. The mind must be tamed. When the mind is flooded by such distractions, a number of time-honoured approaches can be tried. These techniques are designed to still and focus the mind.
The pole suggests attentiveness to good posture; the rope, holding the body in a relaxed state. Positioning and silencing the body is a first step.
The going up and down is the repeating of something like "Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me" continually. This second step of repeating the same prayer formula, slowly and quietly, can be a great help in moving beyond thought and stilling the distracted spirit.
Others will find the rosary helpful. Still others will find benefit in a prayerful reading of the Sacred Scriptures.
"Speak Lord, for your servant is listening" (1 Samuel 3:10).
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