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23 January 2015

On Silence and Stillness

One day Abba Theophilus, who was an archbishop, came to Scetis, a desert wasteland and spiritual paradise, where a great number of monks lived and worked.  Archbishop Theophilus made his way to the cell of Abba Pambo, a man recognized and acclaimed for his humility and wisdom.  The brethren who accompanied Theophilus said to Abba Pambo, “Say something to the archbishop, so that he may be edified.”  Abba Pambo replied: “If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.”

As I return to Psalm 62, I want to reflect on silence and stillness.

For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. (Psalm 62:1, NRSV).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, in a 1929 sermon on this verse,  "Not many people have even an inkling what this silence of the soul means, fewer still are those who know something of the silence of the soul waiting for God. Yoked to the day’s work, people hardly have time to catch their breath before society – so-called entertainment – seizes them and sucks what energy is left over from work."

Our soul can get lost in the midst of everyday chaos and noise. And yet, silence frightens most of us. Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist nun and writer, describes her experience of not talking for one year:

"The first thing that happens is you climb the walls. This is personal with me. It doesn't happen anymore. You know, it's like sensory deprivation. But, gradually, what begins to happen is that you sink so deeply into what life has been distracting you from. Because it's a definition of no distractions. That's the purpose of the retreat, no distractions.

You quickly learn that distractions are not just phone calls and emails and outer phenomena. Our own mind, and our longings, and our cravings, and our fantasies and everything are also major distractions. And, as time goes on, and you're feeding it less because there's no talking. You begin to sink deeper into the undistracted state. And then you begin to realize that life is always pulling you away from being fully present."

Silence is frightening. It is frightening not just because we fear the loss of the stuff and the gadgets we use to run from what matters. It's also frightening because it frees us to be truly present, to ourselves and to God.

Then, as Elijah did famously, we are ready to encounter God in the "sound of sheer silence".

Han Shan, a 9th century legendary poet associated with a collection of poems from the Chinese Tang Dynasty in the Taoist and Chan tradition, beautifully talked of how freeing it is to overcome the obstacles created by our ever-busy minds ... when we reach that "undistracted state" Pema Chödrön talks about.

"I've watched smoke spiral into the void of space.
In that bright mirror, I've seen a myriad things.
But last night a dragon gulped the shining moon
and in the blackness, I saw what I had missed.

Birth and Death. Day and Night.
Running water, stagnant pool.
Bud and fading flower.
Can I find the point at which they change
From one into the other?
Can my nostrils turn upwards?

When the mind keeps tumbling
How can vision be anything but blurred?
Stop the mind even for a moment
And all becomes transparently clear!
The moving mind is polishing mud bricks.
In stillness find the mirror!"

Contemplative writers often make a distinction between silence and stillness. Stillness adds intentionality to mere silence.

When your soul is still, it is more than at rest. It gets ready for an encounter with God; it becomes open to receive.

Before we get to true stillness, we must acknowledge the snow globe of our human mind (whirling with thoughts, images, memories, and vague feelings) and the self-serving actions of our human ego (constantly dividing our experiences into good and bad, and trying to make us believe that life on this plain is all there is). 

As you breathe deeply, let the snow globe of your mind settle. Send your ego on a vacation. 

Surrender. Submit. Let go. Admit to yourself that you are longing for this encounter. Then listen deeply. 

In the stillness, you will be ready for your meeting with God.

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