Intimacy and EternityExploring Silence
Part One, Chapter Five
Holy Spirit, think through me till Your ideas are my ideas.
Part One: The River of Delights
The Pace of Life
Towards a Life of Reflection
The Trysting Place
Part Two: The Ascent of Toil
The Dark Night of the Soul
The Principle of Suffer-Reign
The Grace of Yielding
IT IS NOT USUALLY IN THE NOISY PLACES of the world that Christ is best known. To know Him deeply has always required a degree of seclusion. The more aware we are of the Lord’s presence, the less we need to say. Certainly, as we came to the far end of the first stretch of our walk beside the river, the beauty of our surroundings was enough to make us quiet and reflective.
A novice nun defined contemplation as looking at the Lord and loving Him. Her friend, more experienced in the ways of God, replied that it is even more about letting the Lord look at us and speak to us. When we love someone deeply, we do not always need to be busy doing things together. After fifteen years of marriage, Rosalind and I do not need to cast around in search of inspiration for conversation; we are happy just to be together. It should be the same in our relationship with the Lord. It is a sign of maturity when we can hold intimate silence together, not just in one’s and two’s but as a church.
Our whole way of living in the twentieth century conspires to keep us from experiencing true silence. We cannot even go shopping without being bombarded by music that is designed to put us in a purchasing mood. Yet many Christians have followed society in becoming far too dependent on background noise. Perhaps this is because it disguises the subconscious fear that if we take time to explore this silence we might either come to enjoy it too much (and become thoroughly lazy) or, more probably, find ourselves bored out of our minds!
What then is the difference between the loneliness that we fear
and the solitude and the silence which I am advocating?
Perhaps we can put it this way: a greater measure of silence and solitude will not automatically help us to draw us closer to the Lord, but its absence will undoubtedly impoverish us. There is a type of solitude which is so rich in the presence of the Lord that it completely overcomes the fear of loneliness. Whether we experience solitude by our own choice or because it is forced on us, the best way to use these times is to practise coming into the presence of God until we feel at home there.
Once, at a conference, I suggested that we hold silence together during a meal. I can hardly say that people burst into visions of glory (especially when they were making ludicrous signs to each other to pass the salt!) but the underlying peace it brought cleared our minds and prepared us to do serious work in the evening meeting.
Silence is such an alien concept for most people that we need help in exploring it. It is good to introduce extended times of silence into our services and meetings. The more we persevere (and experiment) the more we will discover an inner world that contains just as many peaks and troughs, triumphs and defeats as our more conventional spheres of service.
It is true that the voice of God, having once fully penetrated the heart,
becomes strong as the tempest and loud as the thunder;
but before reaching the heart
it is as weak as a light breath which scarcely agitates the air.
It shrinks from noise, and is silent amid agitation.
(Ignatius of Loyola)
Broadly speaking, we can make a distinction between attentive silence (which is the threshold into true perception) and inattentive daydreaming – which may be little more than an excuse for indulging in all manner of idle fancies.
At its fullest, silence will help us to discover a deep soul peace, which subdues our striving, lifts us above our everyday preoccupations, and renders us more receptive to the gentle whispers of God’s counsel. Such experiences may be fleeting, but the reassurance the Lord brings through them makes a deep impact on our lives.
There can be no short cuts to this life of intimacy. Pascal wrote, ‘Earthly things have to be known in order to be loved; heavenly things have to be loved in order to be known.’ As we make the effort to slow down our outward life, new depths of insight and creativity await us. But first we have to overcome the jingle-jangle of a stress-clogged brain and persevere through what I call ‘The Five Minute Barrier’.
Some of the wandering thoughts that assail us during this initial attempt to enter silence may actually serve a useful function.
It pays to jot down the more useful ideas that bombard our mind. This will keep us from spending the rest of our quiet time worrying that we will forget to make a certain phone call or to get on with some necessary chore.
We should not be surprised if we find all manner of painful hurts and unhelpful desires rising from our subconscious depths. This may be the moment when we realize that we are moving from the River of Delights to the Ascent of Toil. It is a great mistake if we give up because the going is getting tough.
The wayward emotions that rage in our soul are like the timbers of a leaky hull, which creak alarmingly as the restless waves beat against them. Our unresolved hurts and conflicts seem to overshadow everything. As we quickly realize, the sins of the mind are the hardest of all to overcome. As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he (Proverbs 23:7 K.J.V.).
Perhaps it will help to realize that we are bound to experience a host of soulish desires, to say nothing of a tedious parade of ‘but-what-if ’ dreads. The more we learn to recognize the shape and nature of these thought-attacks, the easier we will find it to shun them. There are times when wisdom lies in refusing to join battle with these insistent foes.
After all, we know from bitter experience that they lead only to spiritual dead-ends and emotional unhappiness.
At other times the best form of defence is attack. By converting our fears into prayer, we invite the power of the Lord into the situation. In that sense we can say that the devil plays his part in teaching us to pray without ceasing! The attacks of the evil one stir us to pray more fervently, often for issues we would not otherwise have concerned ourselves with.
For many years I aimed to get away for a few days retreat every three or four months, not only to rest after a busy speaking schedule, but also to spend uninterrupted time with the Lord. I knew this was the Lord’s call on my life, but I still had to overcome occasional twinges of guilt at leaving other people working at the grindstone while I was enjoying time with the Lord.
I have come to realize that I do not go on retreat just for my own sake, but rather to be one in spirit with our friends, and on behalf of the world. People’s needs stand before us with a sharpness and a vividness that rarely happens when we are too busy. The onset of the land phase of the Gulf War, the Dunblane massacre, a fire which killed a vicar’s entire family, revolutions in various eastern countries as well as a critical moment in the peace talks in Ireland: these are just some of the many issues that have occurred while we have been on retreat and which we have been able to pray about.
True silence is therefore far from inactive. We are able to enjoy the shared intimacy of two people who care deeply for each other. In the silence we are also able to embrace the calling of the watchman, who is ever alert to receive the promptings of the Spirit.
Making space for silence and solitude helps to counteract the pressures that we face and takes us beyond the superficiality of so much that passes for spiritual life today. It would be a mistake to associate contemplation with rose-covered cottages, however, and some subconscious attempt to escape from the harsher realities of the world. In many ways it brings us more closely in touch with the suffering of the world.
The Perils of Silence
All the troubles of life come upon us, because we refuse to sit quietly for a while in our rooms.
Most of us need to pay more attention to this call to sit at Jesus’ feet. There are some, however, who are prone to hold back in the face of life’s challenges. For them, the idea of ‘enjoying’ God’s presence in this way represents a form of escapism which would lead them to embrace a world-denying seclusion that the carpenter of Nazareth could not own.
We lose our fire, and our saltiness, if we withdraw from the wider body of Christ, just as a coal once removed from the grate soon loses its heat.
I dare not recommend too much solitude, therefore, lest we become unhealthily introspective and indifferent to people’s real needs. Our soul requires the honing that comes from interacting with the world, honest fellowshipping and even from direct confrontations. If God wants solitude to play a primary part in our life (as opposed to merely being a helpful and enriching aspect of it) He will make this abundantly clear.
It is only fair to warn that Satan does not regard the place of prayer as being out of bounds. Some of his fiercest temptations come when we are on our own with God. Periods of silence and reflection that are stimulating and refreshing when we are at peace with ourselves can prove unnerving and disorientating when our minds are overwrought.
Silence magnifies the forces that are at work in our inmost being.
This is not a way of life I would recommend, therefore, for beginners, the depressed or the neurotic. Pride (or discouragement) accompany the novice, just as condemnation and anxiety stalk the emotionally unstable. Simple friendship and fellowship, together with enjoyment of the blessings we can find in God’s open air, may well provide a more balanced diet at certain stages of our pilgrimage than a prolonged time of ‘seeking the word of the Lord.’
Compulsive activists also find inner stillness elusive. Many of these people are themselves victims of emotional deprivation and tend to overanalyse issues to the point where they have great difficulty in discerning the still small voice of God.
Solitude is equally wasted when we indulge in idle fantasies. It is not that it is wrong to dream (the mind needs to) but it is foolish to dally, for daydreams nurture insatiable longings which reality can never match. It may be helpful for us to understand what is happening through the fantasy process. We often wish or imagine ourselves to be something we are not. Daydreams, like their nocturnal counterparts, typically project us to the centre-stage and so reveal our hidden idolatries.
Unrealistic expectations are also part of the reason why we make so many unreasonable demands on our long-suffering partners, friends or pastors. The fundamental mistake we make is to look to other people to fulfil needs that, in reality, only the Lord can meet – or which can never legitimately be met by anyone!
Since delusions feed on isolation, we must be careful. The devil plies his craft in ways which pander to our religious instincts. It is easy to entertain strange ideas when we are too much on our own. Excesses of belief or behaviour can breed like bacteria when unchecked by the restraining influence of more balanced fellowship. Our carnal minds disguise themselves by a variety of subterfuges, including the conversation-stumping excuse that ‘God has told us to do it’ – a claim which a more impartial testing would have revealed to be nonsense.
I can remember times as a young Christian worker when I entered the Lord’s presence more in the hope of learning the great plans He had for my life than to give Him the love of my heart. My desire to seek God was real enough, but my soulish ambition exposed me to hear all manner of delusions. The devil is a past master in dangling apparent opportunities before our eyes, as well as strewing our path with unhelpful distractions which end up diverting our time and energies.
Anything that overfeeds the ego needs to be avoided, as does any vision which brooks no questioning. Impulsiveness and isolation are twin rocks on the shores of disaster, which means that sound judgement and a teachable spirit are essential qualities if we are to lead the life of reflection safely. A godly caution, together with a willingness to keep in touch with people’s real needs, are healthy antidotes to excessive enthusiasm, lest we fatten our souls on the flimsy fare of fantasies and delusions.
The risks are genuine, but so too is the calling. It takes courage to sit quietly with God, and not to run off and lose ourselves in some other pastime. We must face the devil, but at the same time avoid condemning ourselves. To this end, it pays to do what we can to ensure that our times of contemplation are uninterrupted. Just as revival power is easily quenched by the hostile criticism and questioning of other believers, so it takes special grace to remain in the Lord’s presence once our peace has been distracted by confusing thoughts and demands.
Will we always break through the turbulence of these disturbing thoughts and come right through into the presence of God? I would dearly love to say that of course we will, but realistically this may not always be the case. If, after a period of time, our thoughts are simply refusing to settle, and we find that daydreams are making any serious reflection impossible, we may well be wiser to go and do something else.
On other occasions, we reach a place of inner stillness only to have to drag ourselves away again almost immediately as other duties beckon.
It is better to have glimpsed and tasted than not to have come at all.
Something of that inner peace will remain with us in the midst of the day’s busyness.
To enjoy times of silence with God is to enter a far greater awareness of the ways of eternity. But we must still guard our hearts against attitudes that corrupt and undermine this inner stillness. Those who spend too much time in their own company often display an alarming readiness to pass judgements on all and sundry, mistaking their prejudices for maturity and wisdom.
None of us is strong enough to carry a prejudice and a cross at the same time. The Lord warns us ‘not to look down on one of these little ones.’1 The moment we begin to despise other people our hearts fill with contempt and scorn and we distance ourselves from God’s heart of love. There is, of course, a simple remedy: it is virtually impossible to despise someone we are praying for!
Our own curiosity often hinders us in the reading of holy writings, when we seek to understand and discuss, where we should pass simply on. If you would profit from your reading, read humbly, simply, honestly, and not desiring to win a reputation for learning.2
As we have seen, it takes courage, as well as discipline, to enter into silence, because it is here that we experience not only great blessings but also serious challenges. In silence, our masks fall off as we come face to face with the less attractive sides of our character.
Which of us finds prayer and forgiveness a natural response when we are subjected to unkind words and unduly harsh criticism? Try working your way through these issues, extending outwards to see how this applies first to the immediate members of your family, then to your colleagues, neighbours and church members. Finally, reach out in prayer to nations or institutions that you consider have been unkind to you personally, or to people that you love. When you can freely pray blessing on these people and countries, with passion of soul but equanimity of heart, you are well on your way to reaching true inner stillness.
Pray and meditate on this verse, and these words from Julian of Norwich, which sum up the theme of this chapter perfectly.
Guard your steps when you go to the house of God.
Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools . . .
God is in heaven and you are on earth,
So let your words be few.
This is the reason why we are not at rest in heart and soul; that here we seek rest in things that are so little that there is no rest in them, and we do not know our God who is all mighty, all wise and all good. For He is true rest. No soul can have rest until it finds created things are empty.
When the soul gives up all for love, so that it can have Him that is all, then it finds true rest.
God, of Your goodness, give me Yourself, for You are enough for Me.
1. Matthew 7:5, 18:10.
2. Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ.