We all have our favourite verse of scripture – I wonder what yours is, if I asked you? Something familiar and consoling – “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, He maketh me lie down in green pastures, He leadeth me beside the still waters, He restoreth my soul”. “In Him we live and move, and have our being”. Mine comes from the Book of Revelations, “And there was silence in heaven for about half an hour”.
The praise of God will not consist in one endless Bach chorale sung by angels and humanity, but it will also involve silence. So the silence we experience on earth has an eternal dimension, an eternal flavour, a quality about it that can speak to us of heaven. It isn’t so much an absence of noise, but something much richer, deeper, a fullness, a fruition, something utterly positive and freeing and ultimately glorious.
“There was silence in heaven for about half an hour”. The early Church Fathers had a high regard for silence. One wrote: “Any trial, that ever comes to you, can be conquered by silence”. These are very strong words. To be asked just to sit in silence when we are upset, or hurt, or angry seems so alien to us. We want to act and resolve the situation. Anything but silence.
However, what the Church Fathers were trying to say was that beneath all the turmoil we may be experiencing, our true lives, our true identity, our real self is rooted in something far richer than what may be occurring on the surface. We are rooted in Christ’s resurrection, which can’t be undone.
Rowan Williams echoes the Church Fathers when he writes: “Silence somehow reaches to the root of our human problem. Our words help us to strengthen the illusion with which we surround ourselves, the things we tell ourselves. Without silence, we will never get closer to knowing who we truly are, before God”.
In other words, so often in our obsessive inner conversations we have with ourselves, we are playing into the problem, rather than being set free from it. The Fathers are calling us to focus beyond what might be obsessing us to this still centre and trying to get in touch again with that reality that is always healing and restorative. A reality that cannot be destroyed by the turmoil we find ourselves in. This reality, of course, is God’s own spirit within us. It is as if each one of us has a flame, a living flame within us and we all share in the same flame, and in the silence we come towards this flame to be enlivened and warmed and healed.
However, it’s not easy and we avoid the silence because we have to experience so much of the confusions that seem to overwhelm us.
I’ve told this story before, but I always enjoy hearing it again. Metropolitan Anthony Bloom in his book “School for Prayer” tells a story about a lady who visited him shortly after he became a priest in the Orthodox Church. She wanted his advice about prayer. For fourteen years she had been saying the Jesus prayer almost continually, she said, and had never experienced God’s presence at all. “If you speak all the time”, said Anthony, “You don’t give God a chance to get a word in”.
“What shall I do?”, she asked. Anthony advised her to go into her sitting room after breakfast, “Make sure everything is tidy and sit in a chair, light the little lamp before the icon that you have, and first of all take stock of your room. Just sit, look around, and try to see where you are. Be aware of what’s around you. Admire the objects. Be totally present. Take out your knitting and knit for about 15 minutes before the face of God, but I forbid you to say one word of prayer. You just knit, or sit still, and enjoy the peace of your room.”
Well of course she didn’t think this was very spiritual advice at the time, but some weeks later the lady returned. She was a different person. “It works!”, she told him. “I got up, washed, tidied my room, had breakfast, came back, made sure there was nothing that would worry me and settled into my armchair and thought ’ Oh how nice, I have 15 minutes in which I can do nothing without feeling guilty’ And I looked around, and for the first time in years, I thought ‘Goodness! What a lovely room I live in’. Then, she said, “I felt so quiet because the room was so peaceful. There was a clock ticking, but it didn’t disturb the silence. Its ticking just underlined the fact that everything was so still, and after a while I remembered that I must knit before the face of God. I began to knit and became more and more aware of the silence. Then I perceived that this silence was not simply the absence of noise, but that the silence had substance. It was not an absence of something, but a presence of something. The silence had a density, a richness and it began to pervade me. The silence around began to come and meet the silence within me. All of a sudden, I perceived that the silence was a presence. At the heart of the silence there was Him, who is all stillness, all peace, all poise.
Those who practice this stillness, silence in the presence of God feel strangely more lively afterwards.
However this form of prayer won’t be for everyone. The extroverts among discover this life giving presence through activity. Prayer is about bringing us to life in all its fullness. And we can ask ourselves where are those places what are those activities that make us feel more alive , more joyous which sets us free.
Maybe you feel alive after taking a long walk , maybe you feel more alive while reading a great book taking the time to saviour its thoughts and language, maybe enjoying the company of friends brings life, taking a long drive, being involves in a building project. The place will be uniquely ours.
What brings us alive is where we are most likely to discover God because he is the source of that liveliness. These places become places of prayer when we have a sense of gratitude towards them.
God comes disguised as our lives.
What draws me to God may send others to sleep. Being present to God is a very personal thing , a relationship that is uniquely ours.
We a called to be faithful to where we find Him and at the same time allow him to draw us to new places where he is perhaps more able to give more of himself in ways we have as yet not even thought possible … one such way maybe is to discover silence even just for half an hour …