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Keeping Silence

 Then Moses and the levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying: Keep silence and hear, O Israel! This very day you have become the people of the Lord your God. Deuteronomy 27:9

The late Father Thomas Keating, a pillar in contemporary contemplative life, wrote, “God’s first language is silence.”1 In the creation story told in the first verses of Genesis, the author describes God as speaking creation into being: “And God said, ‘Let there be…’”. This is the Word of God, the originating impulse for everything that is, and this Word continues to be spoken in absolute silence. And so we must be silent to hear it. I daresay the most common experience we have of God is silence. We ask a question in prayer and receive silence. We cry out in desperation and hear silence. We climb a mountain in order to connect with the divine and hear only a deep, vast silence. While there are some who occasionally report receiving an auditory message from God, for the vast majority of us, God is silent.

Silence, however, is far from a non-answer, nor is it evidence of being ignored. If life grows out of silence, we know there is an awesome power residing within it. When a response to an inquiry of the divine is silence, it is an invitation to delve into a deep reflection on the question. Focused meditation is one way to receive insight. Sometimes, however, the formation of the response occurs subconsciously, as if in silence. I often find that insights come when I am not actively seeking them, as I go about my daily activities.

My third grade teacher, Mrs. Everett, told the class that we have two ears and one mouth so we should listen more and speak less. It is trivial and cliché, perhaps, but important. One of the hardest lessons in a committed relationship is the inestimable value of strategically keeping one’s mouth shut and listening. Obviously, to do so requires our willingness to be silent. The same is true in our relationship with God. Does our constant internal chatter combine with the drone of the world around us to separate us from a genuine experience of others, including God, in silence? I believe it does.

In general, we are uncomfortable with silence. Indeed, it is hard to find a quiet place in which to engage with silence because we live in a noisy world. Extended periods of silence may seem like missed opportunities to catch up on the latest gossip, activities of friends and family, or entertainment. Most of us fear silence because of the uncomfortable vacuum it creates. Awkward pauses in conversation send our minds into overdrive, searching for something to say. Receiving the silent treatment from a partner can be agonizing. Silence is uncomfortable because it puts us in a situation of not knowing – not knowing what the other is thinking, not knowing what to say, not knowing what we do not know. It creates internal tension with its unusual auditory void. The tension comes from our unfamiliarity with silence. We are forever describing our life experience in words, both to others and to ourselves, and those very descriptions separate us from the silence within which the experiences arise.

We often confuse the silence of inactivity with the deep silence from which God creates. In other words, we cannot simply turn off the television and our mobile devices and expect to find silence. Silencing the noise from our external world is one thing; silencing our internal world is the greater challenge. Striving only for external silence is like praying with one eye open – we are not fully committing ourselves to the depth of silence from which God works in and through us. It is through the latter type of silence that we find entry into the rich moments of our lives, being present to the creative potential and creating reality happening at all times and in all places. True silence provides a blank slate from which to co-create our lives with God, which is both frightening and exhilarating.

Entering a state of internal silence is a skill we can develop with practice. A foundational tool is Centering Prayer,2 which is a method of praying silently. By keeping silence, as the author of Deuteronomy writes, we have the opportunity to experience God. Jesus referred to this as entering the kingdom of God.

This is the 7th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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  • Thomas Keating, Intimacy With God. Crossroad Publishing, New York. 1994, p. 175.
  • See my Life Note from December 20, 2018 for an overview of the practice of Centering Prayer. Resources are also available at ContemplativeOutreach.org.

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 13: The Language of God is Silence

Be still, and know that I am God! Psalm 46:10a

Words encapsulate and narrow our lives. If we are not talking to someone, our internal dialogue is running rampant. If we are not interrupting the speaker, we are planning how to respond instead of listening with a mind open to learning something new. After we converse with another person, we often replay and analyze the dialogue. We may think of things we wish we had or had not said, or we may wonder what the other person meant by words they used or how they spoke them. The point is that immediately after an experience, we begin reshaping the experience with our words. The actual experience ends and the less-than-accurate description of the experience replaces it.

Words are symbols for things, not the things themselves. We describe, label, and categorize, but words themselves have no substance. We might describe this picture in detail, but the image in the hearer’s mind will still be very different from the actual picture. Such is the nature of a verbal description – it is not the reality. Our words always remove us a step or more from the experience. Thus, the biblical directive to “Be still.”

The early Jewish people did not believe the name of God should be spoken. When Moses met God at the burning bush, he asked God for a name to give the people. God said, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). Once we have named something, we narrow our belief about its nature. If we say, “This is a maple tree,” we believe it is not a rock or a person. As soon as we begin describing God with words, we limit the possibilities of an otherwise limitless God. Our tendency toward naming and describing makes it easier for us to understand and process our experiences, but as our words remove us from those experiences, we substitute the words for the reality. Much beauty, depth, and meaning is forever lost in the process.

The Psalmist encourages us to still our minds. There are many ways to do this, all of which require focus and persistence. Yoga, meditation, centering or contemplative prayer are a few ways to silence our inner dialogue long enough to draw closer to God. God’s language appears silent to us because God does not speak as we do. In the creation story, God speaks the world into being. “Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3) God’s voice itself provided the creative power. Similarly, in the first chapter of John, the Word of God became flesh in Jesus. God’s creative language does not interface with our spoken language, and we cannot experience it as long as our internal dialogue interrupts and interprets. As the Psalmist says, we must “be still” to know God.

The language of God is silence. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes

Old Prayers

There was a tree at the center of the earth, and its height was great. The tree grew strong, its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth. Its foliage was beautiful, its fruit abundant, and it provided food for all. The animals of the field found shade under it, the birds of the air nested in its branches, and from it all living beings were fed. Daniel 4:10-12 

An ancient chant begins: Silence my soul, these trees are prayers. I have had a life-long love affair with trees. I climbed them as a child, built tree-houses in their branches, swung from their limbs, and researched them in college. I have admired, planted, and cared for trees all my life. I love gazing through their branches and watching the sunlight dance from leaf to leaf. I love the sound of the breeze meandering through them. I am spellbound, walking through forests of trees. I am in awe of the stark contrast their dark, barren branches create against the cold blue of a winter sky, like cracks across a plate of glass. I love trees, but I have never considered them prayers.

And so, when I read the chant: Silence my soul, these trees are prayers, I was intrigued by the possibilities. First of all, I associate trees with silence. Certainly, many trees grow in noisy environments, but they rise above the noise and bustle of the lives they cover. They stand still, unnoticed, watchful, and mostly unaffected by the chaos below. Second, trees – particularly old trees – reach up to the heavens, weather storms (although most bare scars), and meticulously record and secure each year of their lives in the rings of their wood. They provide shade and shelter for all types of living creatures. We say of old homes, “If these walls could talk…” The same can be said of trees: “If these trees could talk…” If these trees could talk, we might hear an old prayer.

What would the prayer of a tree sound like? I suspect it would include the passionate promises of young lovers and the wordless grief of the widow. Such a prayer would stretch across years and generations, and so capture moments measured in decades, not minutes. The prayer of a tree would not be caught up in the now, but in the then and now. It would be a long, deliberate prayer, and it would resonate with a timeless beauty. To hear such a prayer would require listening with the heart and not with the ears…

Silence my soul, these trees are prayers.

I asked the tree, ‘Tell me about God;’ and then it blossomed.

Come home to church this Sunday. You may hear a tree blossom.

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Life Notes

 

Beyond Words

Be still, and know that I am God!  Psalm 46:1a

Be StillI am a man of too many words. I think in words, I speak in words, and, too often, I experience life through the filter of words. I attempt to capture beauty in words and in doing so I invariably lose much of the wonder I try to describe. There is a saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. I experienced the sunset in this picture a couple of weeks ago at the Lake of the Ozarks. I would only detract from the splendor by trying to describe it. Even the picture does not capture the experience, however. A picture is a two-dimensional recreation of a single moment. A sunset occurs in four dimensions, the fourth being the 30 or so minutes it requires to manifest fully.

I enjoy using words to share the insights and wisdom I occasionally find. A part of me knows, however, that the more words I use, the farther I stray from the essence of what I attempt to share. Consider a finger pointing at the moon, where the moon is truth and the finger is its description. The purpose of the finger is to point, to lead others to experience the moon for themselves. Unfortunately, we too readily focus on the words – the finger – instead of the truth – the moon – to which they point. I fall into this trap regularly. I tell myself if I can only find the right combination of words, I will capture an experience for eternity. Certainly, the written word can be beautiful, inspiring, and artful. But words cannot capture the totality of a beautiful experience.

Words are symbols we create to represent something else. The word rock describes a part of creation. Adjectives can make it more precise: a small, smooth, round, brown rock. Even so, the rock and the description of the rock are not the same. We simply cannot capture reality in words. Reality is experiential, and words are just marks on paper. Like the sunset above, reality happens in space over a span of time. If we want a description of an experience, words are great. If we want the experience, however, we must be present. Words can lead us to believe we have experienced something we have only read about.

Saint Francis of Assisi, a 13th Century monk, wrote, “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” In general, we talk too much, and our words can actually inhibit understanding. The Psalmist tells us to “Be still” if we wish to know God. We cannot find God in a dictionary. Neither does God live in books, including the Bible, even though that text is our primary resource for learning about God. We experience God by seeking and listening, not to the words of the voice in our head, but by responding to the pull on our heart. To find God, we must eventually move beyond words.

Come home to church this Sunday. Be still and know.

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Christmas in July 

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

–Luke 1:47-49

Tonight I hear a faint and lovely voice drifting through my home, accompanied by a guitar. There is an angel in my daughter’s room, singing. I never would have heard her, had I not been sitting in silence waiting for a blessing. I would like to get closer, but I find such blessings to be finicky – like seeing a doe in the front yard and wanting to get a closer look, but knowing it will run away as I approach. It will run from fear of my intentions, and only the white fluff of its tail disappearing into the woods will be visible before I have the opportunity to explain. I mean it no harm; I only desire to be blessed by its presence. Tonight, I wish to listen to the blessing of the angel without scaring it away.

I recognize the shyness of angels, because I, too, was shy when I was young and vulnerable. You see, I needed to sing. Something inside of me regularly struggled for release, and its best exit was through song. But I could only purge effectively in private. The invasion of another into my holy space made the magic of the moment disappear. I could not bear being judged in the process of becoming whole. The moment I caught wind of my mother on the stair, the music stopped. And I know it broke her heart.

My soul, magnifies the Lord!

The song of this angel is one I wrote, based on The Magnificat – Mary’s song of praise from the gospel of Luke. A Christmas song in July. A song I wrote to bless others, now returns to bless me! I want to sing along, but I fear the music will stop.

And my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior, for God looked with favor on me. 

God is looking with favor on me right now. The inspiring words and music are returning to me through the voice of an angel. Oh, how I want to approach – but how to do it without making my presence known? I know it is safest to stay put and listen more intently. I find that to be the way with spiritual blessings in my life. They need space, privacy, and focus to manifest, and I must be attentive in order to receive it. Angels do not come to me with loud trumpets and raised voices as they seem to have done in biblical times. I hear them when I am silent, and when I listen for them. Shhh! The angel is singing again. Forgive me, but I need to stop typing and listen a little longer…

God raised this lowly servant high…and holy, holy, holy is the name of God!

Come home to church this Sunday. Maybe an angel is waiting to bless you there.

Greg Hildenbrand

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