Few things are as calming, grounding, and renewing for me as the quiet, solitary hours I spend in the woods and fields from mid September to mid November. The stresses, challenges, or fears that burden my life begin to resolve and fall away almost as soon as I leave the well-traveled roads and enter the wildness of nature, where Thoreau said is the preservation of the world. The world and I both, I think, could use some of that preservative now.
Signs of stress and disintegration are all around, and I don’t need to point them out. But there’s one I will single out because for me it has become such a poignant stand-in for all the others. Ahmed Mohamed, a fourteen-year-old with dreams of becoming an engineer, last week brought to school a digital clock he had made. “I wanted to impress my teacher,” he said. But after showing it to her, he was arrested, handcuffed, and hauled off to the police station. “They told me that I had committed the crime of a hoax bomb,” Ahmed explained after authorities released him.
Ahmed and his experience have come to represent many things, among them racism (he’s from Sudan, in northeast Africa), cultural and religious bigotry (Ahmed is Muslim), and especially the increased fear in which we all live, a fear that, along with other social, economic, and political perversions of life, has warped and threatens to tear apart our social fabric.
But most of all, Ahmed symbolizes for me the degree to which we have lost our bearings in life. We’re groping to find our way through a sickness of civilization unlike anything I’ve known, and I think we need to renew our foundations, get our feet under us, and regain our bearings in order to get through it. We’re beginning a new year of education ministries in our congregation, and that seems a good time for all of us to go back to school in our faith. It certainly seems a good time for me to do that.
In coming weeks, I’m going to look at some things that support me in these or any trying times – seven pillars of faith, I call them, values that support my conscious relationship with God and with the creation in which I live. They’re my personal values. Some of them may speak to you; others may not. Like any garment you may try on at the store, take them and wear them if they fit; leave them for someone else if they don’t. But even if none of them fits you very well, I hope that hearing the pillars of my faith will help you claim the pillars of your faith.
The first pillar, the one that comes before all the others, is silence. More than the mere absence of sound, silence is the absence of stimulation, busyness, even thinking, especially thinking. But silence – stillness could be a better word – is not passive; it’s active, intentional, expectant without expecting anything specific, something Buddhists would call the practice of not doing. It’s an inner posture or attitude that drops the screens of judgment to let something not ourselves in on its own terms.
Being silent is a way of opening to a deeper, more intimate experience of God. “Be still,” the source of life invites, “and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). Be still, be silent, be open, and so draw nearer to the God who is always present. Silence is like the day I rested in the shade after loading bales of hay with my cousins, perfectly still and listening to nothing in particular but the sounds of summer, when a butterfly came to rest on my knee, a momentary gift of grace. Or it’s like the deer suddenly appearing from the woods not ten feet from where I sat motionless and waiting for nothing.
Silence is one of the chief values of those who organize their whole lives around attention to God, those who live the monastic life, but it’s essential for all of us who live ordinary lives in the world. It’s what the Sabbath is about, a time to stop what we’re doing so we can be single-minded in our attention to what God is doing, a time to be still and to let go and to be open and vulnerable to the divine.
From time to time I need to step away from the world I know – I think we all do – away from the life we have constructed and open up again to the life God is creating. I need to step away from my cell phone and ordinary phone, from email and internet, from newspaper and library, from the world that is always at my door asking for help or attention or some piece of my soul. Periodically I even need to step away from the Christian faith tradition I’ve lived in for a lifetime, so I can open up to a God who is present in every faith tradition but who won’t be contained or defined by any of them.
When I’m silent for a long time, more than a few moments, after the noise on the outside disappears, the noise on the inside starts to fade: the yammering of tasks demanding attention; the whining of things undone and promises unfulfilled; the moaning of regrets and lost opportunities; the grinding growl of fears real or imagined; the siren call of my hopes and wishes, my dreams and visions, my opinion of what God ought to do in my life or yours.
When I’ve allowed the outer silence to lengthen and the inner silence to deepen, once in a while I’m able to listen with what St. Benedict called “the ear of your heart,” and I think I can almost hear what Elijah heard when he was lamming from the unbearable pressure of the world, something various translators describe as “a still small voice,” “a gentle whisper,” the “whistling of a gentle air,” or the “sound of sheer silence” that is the voice of God (1 Kings 19:12).
And in the silence, in rare moments, I sometimes experience just a hint of “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Phil. 4:7), and the stress releases, and disintegration is replaced by reconciliation, and through the fog of life I imagine I can see traces of the wholeness, the perfection of life, that God has spread out on the earth.
Deep within each of us is a treasury of life, a nursery of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). To enter this treasury, to harvest its fruits, to rest in silence, to calm and quiet your soul like a child in the lap of its mother (Ps. 131:2), to be still and know that God is God, here are some suggestions.
Schedule an hour of silence at a particular time every day. (Start with twenty minutes if you need to.) During that time, turn off the phone, TV, radio, computer, all other appliances and communication devices, and put away all books and other reading material. Light a candle, perhaps, as a witness to your silence. Sit quietly and rest – or gaze attentively and receptively at a natural object. Listen to the silence, gently let go of the distractions that come to mind, and keep returning to the present moment. Breathe deeply and mindfully, bringing in the silence, expelling mental “noise.” At the end of your time of silence, offer a word of gratitude or love, put out the candle, and go about your business.
These days I don’t get to the woods and fields as often as I’d like, but silence is always at my shoulder, available, beckoning, inviting, offering the grace of a presence that’s usually hidden in the daily cacophony. It’s a good place to get our feet under us and regain our bearings in life.