You probably already know this about me, but I can be a pretty wordy person. Give me a topic and I’ll have something to say or write about it: some thought, some perspective, some possibility, some plan.
During my recovery time these last couple of weeks, I’m surprised to report that my inner world got a lot quieter. My mind relaxed. I didn’t feel the need to think so hard about everything, all the time. I simply enjoyed my days—resting a little, reading a little, watching the birds, enjoying the sunlight. I discovered a new level of peace inside myself as my outer world slowed down and simplified. It felt like God had given me a great gift: a chance to step away from all the “have tos” for a while and simply rest in the presence of Love.
I hope and pray this sweet experience stays with me, because my life has already shifted gears again and things are starting to get busier. I believe that the quiet, the simpler pace, the peace is always with us, waiting for us to notice. But we can get so distracted—by thoughts and plans, opinions and emotions—that we don’t notice ourselves losing touch with the restful realm as we get caught up in our reactions to the moment.
Our Old Testament reading today speaks to the importance of quiet in our lives: “Better is a handful with quiet than two handfuls with toil, and a chasing after wind.” Sure, go ahead and work, says King Solomon, but do it with a sense of inner calm and peace. Keep to your center. This is worth more than all the gain in the world earned by scratching and striving and toil. Work done for its own sake—without a spiritual heart of peace—is like chasing after the wind anyway. It won’t last and chances are we won’t enjoy it or know what to do with it once we catch it. Better to value a sense of ease and peace—to recognize God’s quiet as the jewel of a peaceful life—and be content in our lives.
And contentment is truly what I experienced these last two weeks—even though I was dealing with pain and limited mobility, even though my companions were mostly four-footed and not two, I was wonderfully content. I had what I needed. I was healing. And the beautiful freedom of unlimited time and the expansiveness of God’s loving presence was with me.
One of the books I started reading during my time off was, The Impact of God: Soundings from St. John of the Cross, by Iain Matthew. It’s a book about the life and writings the 16th century Carmelite Friar and contemporary of St. Teresa of Avila who was a reformer at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. Like many young friars who challenged the power of the church, John was thrown into solitary confinement in a freezing prison and all but left for dead. Even though he had been devout and obedient to God all his life, he was yanked from his life’s work, removed from family and friends, and taken away under the cover of darkness, with no word left behind to explain where he’d gone.
At first during his time of imprisonment, John understandably resisted the situation. He couldn’t accept that this could be happening to him, so he pushed back any way he could. Next he found his mind was filled with worries and concerns and regrets that tormented him; he was sorely afraid that Teresa and others he served would think he had abandoned them. As time wore on, John’s mind grew quieter and he stopped fighting so much; and eventually, out of this growing inner stillness, he began to write poetry. Gradually that tender, quiet, mystical writing opened the way to a full experiential recognition—not unlike the young George Fox—of the ever-present, loving companionship of Christ.
One of John’s poems from that time begins:
My beloved, the mountains,
lonely wooded valleys,
the whispers of love, carried by the breeze.
The tranquil night
at one with the rising dawn,
the silence of music,
the mighty sound of solitude
the feast where love makes all new.
In The Impact of God, the author describes John’s change, writing,
“The poetry he composed in prison is a sign that something was released in him there which had not be available to him before….His poems were born not just of genius, but of encounter—of encounter, he says, with Christ…
John can speak of an encounter with the divine which takes one’s breath away. But he relishes more a presence that emerges from within, from behind; as if one entered a dark room, and sat there on one’s own…then, after some minutes, yes there is someone there, always has been, a silhouette becoming clear. There, ‘in the midst’ of obscurity, John speaks of ‘a kind of companionship and inner strength which walks with the soul and gives her strength’ –a presence that is gentle, imperceptible, which evaporates if John tries to describe it but which sustains his life.”
John had found the silence beyond the words, and discovered there the living, loving, peaceful presence of God.
In our own tradition, we know well of George Fox’s struggles with despair as he searched for an authentic faith in his time. It was such a burning question for him that he left home and searched for four years, seeking out the most educated—and, he hoped, the most devout—in the towns and cities of surrounding areas. Ultimately he found no answers and gave up in despair, realizing his search was futile. In his journal, describing that life-changing day in 1647, he wrote,
“Now after I had received that opening from the Lord that to be bred at Oxford or Cambridge was not sufficient to fit a man to be a minister of Christ, I regarded the priests less and looked more after the dissenting people… As I had forsaken all the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those called the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord did let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give him all the glory; for all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the pre-eminence who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power. Thus, when God doth work who shall let [i.e. hinder] it? And this I knew experimentally.”
In his book A Sunlit Absence, author Martin Laird tells the story of an art teacher who needed to teach her young students to pay attention before she could teach them how to draw. To do this, she used a simple exercise. “When I put my hand up,” she said, “I want you to make as much noise as you possibly can. But when I put my hand down, I want you to be completely silent.”
When her hand went up, a mighty racket filled the room. And when she put her hand down, she said the students were “so still…that silence became a presence in the classroom.” Laird writes that learning this important distinction—that silence isn’t absence but presence—is why retreat centers aren’t built along highways. Places designed for rest and contemplation are away from the things of normal life, offering peace and rest and healing. To explain why this is so, he writes,
“…the constant stimulation of the noise of everyday life keeps anxiety levels high and our attention fixed on objects that we are (more or less) aware of, whether an exterior object such as a computer screen or an interior object such as a thought of feeling…But God is not an object in the way these things are objects and therefore cannot be an object of our awareness in the same way.
An environment of …simplicity and silence helps relax the tight grip of our mind’s reactive preoccupation with objects in order that deeper ways of encountering God, which we all have within us, may emerge and open and receive that Light that constantly gives and sustains all that is.”
This is what St. John of the Cross discovered and his mentor Teresa of Avila understood. She famously said, “All difficulties in prayer can be traced to one cause: praying as if God were absent.” This is also what Paul was getting at in his letter to the Philippians. He wrote to thank them for their concern and support, even though his travels made correspondence difficult. No matter, he told them, I have learned to be content whatever my circumstances.
“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty,” he writes. “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”
Paul had found the presence of Christ that would never leave him, come what may. This living peace is a shy companion, like the person sitting in the darkened room waiting for us to notice. But when we turn our minds and hearts in his direction, we are met with a loving gaze that captures and changes us, inside and out, for the better and for always, I hope
And what will we do with a discovery like that? Let me leave you with a joyful suggestion from the poet Mary Oliver:
“Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing. And gave it up.
And took my old body and went out into the morning,
- OT Ecclesiastes 4:6
- NT Philippians 4: 9-13
- Matthew, Iain. The Impact of God: Soundings of St. John of the Cross.
- Laird, Martin. A Sunlit Absence.