In silence and in stillness a religious soul advances…and learns the mysteries of Holy Scripture. – Thomas á Kempis, Imitation of Christ
Over the years I have become increasingly surprised by the number of Christians who have no devotional life, not to even suggest a life of devotion. It seems that, at least from my contacts and conversations, these people have little will or wherewithal to properly discipline themselves. Oddly, refusing to spend time with God, they wonder why they exhibit minimal growth and experience maximum temptations.
A man I know quite well experienced the socio-psycho-pneumatic fallout of this neglect almost immediately after his reversion (he was raised within a Christian home) and return to the church. Having barely emerged from the drug-using subculture, in all of its expressions, he did little more than attend weekly services of worship. Little attention was paid to prayer, the reading of Holy Scripture, and other devotional practices. In short order he returned to his old wayward lifestyle and, for about a year, was much worse off than he had previously been. He himself admits, now for some years stable in Christ, that he was as “a dog returned to its vomit.” Anyone who refuses to actively walk with God, to practice disciplines, is subject to the same spiritual dereliction.
Thomas á Kempis, in the above-cited quotation from his first book, outlines a pattern and process for spiritual growth. If the soul wants to advance in her relationship with God, she must apply herself to rigorous – or at least regular and consistent – discipline. There are at least four disciplines, and / or dispositions, to which the soul must avail itself.
If the soul is to “learn the mysteries,” she must first be inclined to strive toward God. She must “hunger” and “thirst” for the Beloved. This is not our work, it is the work of God. The Spirit must incline our hearts toward God. It is not a goal that we achieve, it is a grace that the Christian receives. If we are not passionate for God, if we do not desire the Divine, we must carefully examine our relationship with God. Those who are alive by the Holy Spirit want to live holy lives. While there will be struggles, and failures, the perpetual passion of the Christian is to want to be holy. We want to walk with God. We want to be with him. If there is no desire, we are in a state of spiritual decline and are on the path of spiritual dereliction.
Moreover, to learn the mysteries, we must cultivate silence. One of the highest compliments I have given my wife, a compliment that she had no difficulty in understanding, was when I told her that “being with [her] is as good as being alone.” Think about it. Although my wife and I do enjoy wonderful conversations, we also enjoy periods of protracted silence. We simply sit and enjoy each other’s company. We “be.” One of the primary monastic disciplines, and ascetic Christian discipline, is silence. Often, when we pray, the conversation is almost entirely one-sided. We speak and, we think, God listens. While God does listen, and while God does want to hear what we say, God also wants to speak with us. Sometimes God wants to speak, or simply be, with us. Without cultivating the discipline of silence we will not be prepared to hear the voice, or the presence, of God. Silence prepares us to hear Scripture and Spirit– as well as the “saints” who also have something to speak into our lives.
Stillness, a third discipline, takes us beyond the place of silence. Silence is practiced so that stillness may be attained. In any relationship there is “baggage” needing to be addressed. If we are not attentive to this “baggage,” life begins to pile up and problems begin to occur. Soon, if we do not address these issues, they begin to make demands upon our attention. The issues begin to shout for our attention. Soon, if we are not attentive, they begin to scream. This applies to silence and stillness. Anyone who has sought to cultivate silence in her life will invariably experience a number of “voices” or obligations clamoring for attention. As soon as you settle down to be with God, a host of distractions seek to dissuade us from our intention. These distractions that dissuade, these “voices,” must be committedly and consistently set aside by the practice of silence. We must, during our time with God, refuse to attend to their insistent demands. Solitude is achieved when the discipline of silence gives way to the disposition of stillness. When we no longer are distracted by demands, when no voice but God’s insists upon our attention, stillness is achieved. How might we accomplish this, keeping in mind that stillness is a grace received as well as the reward of discipline? Several practical practices can be helpful. First set aside a fixed time, morning and evening, when devotional practices (time with God) can be cultivated. Second, especially if you have children and are busy, set aside a place in your home where you can be uninterrupted. This may require that you tell your spouse and children, as well as any roommates you may have, that you are not to be disturbed (apart from dire emergencies) when you are in this place. Some people have a room dedicated to this discipline. Others have family altars. Others, yet, may simply have a chair, designated as the prayer-chair, where others know that they are not to be disturbed when sitting in this particular place. Sacred space must be secured and developed! Finally, begin your time with silence. Stop. Wait. Wait. Listen. Listen. Let go of your desire. Let go of your responsibilities. Release all of these things to God. Let Go and let God. If insistent items still demand your attention, write them briefly down in a notebook to attend to at a later time. Silence prepares the way for stillness. Silence prepares the way for speech and for song.
Thomas á Kempis’ above-noted quotation suggests that silence and stillness prepare us to learn the mysteries of Holy Writ. This is true, but not exclusively true. Reading and reflecting upon Holy Writ also prepares us for silence and stillness. It is not without reason that many Prayer Books begin with a biblical quotation, often coordinated with the Seasons of the Church, as an opening to prayer. As an example, one among dozens, a “Sentence” I like to say is “The Lord is in his holy temple, let all the earth keep silence before him.” Another introductory Sentence I enjoy is “I wait for the Lord, my soul does wait, and in his word do I hope.” These, as well as other biblical quotations that are silently reflected upon, can prepare us to hear and heed God. (Another, easily remembered because of its frequent usage, is “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.”) The reverent reading of and reflection upon the written Word of God can prepare us for silence and stillness.
Growth in God, striving for sanctification, is the natural state of the person who is alive in God. It is, so to speak, the normal Christian life– and not extraordinary in any way. By God’s good grace we have been afforded certain priorities and practices to assist us along our pathway into what has been called (improperly I believe) the “deeper life.” As the old hymn celebrates, “As we walk with the Lord / In the light of his word / What a glory he sheds on our way.…”
The Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a widely-published author, is Priest-Oblate with the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Order of Saint Benedict, and is connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California.
Image above, right: “Sitting in Silence.” Photograph. Alice Popkorn.