Time for stillness

“Be still,” we’re invited. And the fruit of stillness – genuine stillness, not the interstitial pause between the many agenda that claim our attention – will be an experiential knowledge of the Something Deeper that dwells in stillness, the something we call “God” (Psalm 46:10).

Being still requires a lot of slowing down, for me, at least. I’m reminded of that during every vacation, especially this one leading up to retirement and the shifting of gears into whatever comes next. For me and most of the people in my circles, life is about keeping all the plates spinning. (Remember that fellow on The Ed Sullivan Show who couldn’t stop running back and forth to literally kept his many plates spinning on those long dowels?) Even the work we dress in liturgical costume and invest with holy meaning – I’m thinking “pastoral ministry” here – contains an idolatry that tends to keep us running to the point of exhaustion. I know, the choice to be overly busy or not is always mine, but the sirens of self-importance are always trying to lure me onto the rocks of indispensability, and seldom is there anyone who will lash me to the mast.

Trying to be still – more honestly, trying to let go of my learned busyness so a natural stillness can make itself known in me – brings to mind the words of William Alexander Percy in his poem, “Home.”

I have a need of silence and of stars;
Too much is said too loudly; I am dazed.
The silken sound of whirled infinity
Is lost in voices shouting to be heard.
I once knew men as earnest and less shrill.
An undermeaning that I caught I miss
Among these ears that hear all sounds save silence,
These eyes that see so much but not the sky,
These minds that gain all knowledge but no calm.
If suddenly the desperate music ceased,
Could they return to life? or would they stand
In dancers’ attitudes, puzzled, polite,
And striking vaguely hand on tired hand
For an encore, to fill the ghastly pause?
I do not know. Some rhythm there may be
I cannot hear. . . .

Though the “voices shouting to be heard” come from every quarter, most of them, I confess, are echoes of the inner voices of unmet need and appetite I’ve been carrying for a lifetime. Tuning them out externally will not silence them internally. Something else is required if I’m to sense the rhythm I cannot hear (the music of the spheres?) – stillness, not the passive stillness of doing nothing but the active, attentive stillness of “doing not doing.” Songwriter and author Charlotte Eriksson had some good advice for me about this.

Go outside. Don’t tell anyone and don’t bring your phone. Start walking and keep walking until you no longer know the road like the palm of your hand, because we walk the same roads day in and day out, to the bus and back home and we cease to see. We walk in our sleep and teach our muscles to work without thinking and I dare you to walk where you have not yet walked and I dare you to notice. Don’t try to get anything out of it, because you won’t. Don’t try to make use of it, because you can’t. And that’s the point. Just walk, see, sit down if you like. And be. Just be, whatever you are with whatever you have, and realise that that is enough to be happy. There’s a whole world out there, right outside your window. You’d be a fool to miss it.

Taking up residence in Middlebury, Vermont, several years ago was more than a change of geography; it was a deeper change of situation in life that followed my divorce. Everything was new, every path untrodden for about the first six weeks. Then the routine started settling in. I took the same path here, the same route there, saw less of what was there and more of merely what was necessary for my new routine. Before it’s about anything else, stillness is about learning to see again, hear again, feel again with senses that have grown dull with laziness and lack of practice.

So before I decide what I’m going to do with my life in this new season, I’ll spend time learning to listen for what life intends to do with me. (Thanks for that, Parker Palmer.) Three months seems about right, from the summer solstice to the autumnal equinox, from high point to equilibrium, from fullness of growth to the beginning of harvest. There will be chores and projects to undertake at the house, a relationship with my wife to explore more deeply, dogs to walk, stillness and grace to rediscover.

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