"Thinking often makes prayer cease"

“Thinking often makes prayer cease”  –  Henri Nouwen in his Latin American journal ¡Gracias!

Have you ever thought about silence?  Like seriously contemplated what silence means?  Do you think you have ever experienced silence?  This thought arises from an experience of silence during orientation where we packed up and headed off to Campion Center out in Weston, MA.  The final days of orientation were to be spent on retreat in silence.  Forced silence as a way to reflect/meditate on all the information we had learned, situations we had experienced, and people we had met.  This was my first time on a silent retreat, and it was something I was looking forward to.

One of my favorite passages in the Bible comes from 1 Kings 19:11-13:

11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.  “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then a voice came to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  (NRSV)

In this Elijah is running from society.  He is the only one left, or so he believes, that is observing the Word.  He is fed up with his fellow humans, and is on the run.  Only at the urging of Angles has he made his way to Mt. Horeb, and even there is essentially stands up and says, “Please Lord, take me now!”  And it is only after he has looked everywhere else that he finds God in the sound of silence (or I should say the absence of sound!).

This was somewhat like our experience at orientation.  God’s presence was made abundantly clear from the start based upon the sheer number of people who had heard a call to service and answered.  But I was beginning to struggle with finding God in myself with all that was going on around me.  The days were packed full of useful and important information, and bonding with all of the volunteers sometimes took precedence over quiet reflection on God’s presence.  I was struggling.  I had begun to pull myself back from this group in an attempt to find God’s call.  It was almost as though I had lost it and was uncertain as to where I was headed spiritually as well as physically.  Fortunately the silent retreat came at a time when I most needed it.

I entered into the retreat looking for God’s call to become more pronounced.  What was it that I was being called to exactly?  Something had brought me to the Jesuit Volunteers; I had heard something, but as with many things God says to us, I wanted it to be clearer, more pronounced.  I, like Elijah, was looking for God’s voice.  But as you probably know, this is not how God works.  There are very few people who hear His call like a megaphone in their ear…God is much more subtle.  The silent retreat, while absent of any head ringing calls from God, provided me an environment to regroup and refocus on God’s presence in my life.

I think there are only a handful of moments in my life where I have found true silence, because many times what I take as silence isn’t actually silence, but a God made reminder of life.   One of these times occurred while on retreat.  The retreat center provided several workshops for us to attend during our stay.  One that I sat in on was “Centering Prayer”.  A meditative exercise meant to quiet the mind and body to a point where you can simply BE in the presence of God.   You start with being still and quieting the body.  “For a few moments, simply notice what’s happening in your body without trying to change it.  Be aware of where you are stiff or tense, where you are dull.  Without slouching, let your body be supported by the floor or the chair; let it become quiet.” (quoted from a handout)

Gently begin to breathe deeply.  Become conscious to the simple act of breathing in and out.   As you become aware of your breathing, attempt to make your breaths longer and deeper, but do not strain.  As you breathe out, let go from yourself all impurities and dis-ease.  “And as you breathe in, fill yourself with peace and with the abiding presence of the Divine Mystery who breathed life into the nostrils of Adam and Eve and who like a mighty wind blew over the dark chaos before the cosmos was created.”

At this point in our exercise, the 20 or so other people in the room had vanished from my mind.  It was just me and my breathing.  But still my mind was wandering, as it tends to do.  The next step in this centering prayer is to focus on a divine word; something that speaks to you.  The word that settled into my mind was ‘hope’.  Somewhat appropriate for where I was mentally at the time.   As I was sitting in that room, focusing on my breaths in and out, I began to quiet my mind.  Focusing on my divine word.  As other thoughts popped into my mind, I would simply refocus on my word; refocus on being in the divine presence.  The facilitator had us picture these ideas or thoughts that would interrupt our prayer as sail boats passing by the beach on a peaceful day…just let them keep on sailing, and do not dwell on what they contain.

By the end of the 20 or 30 minutes we spent practicing this everything had disappeared from my periphery.  I really had no idea how much time had passed, as I was simply content with being there.  One of the most astonishing realizations when we were brought back to the world of sound by the ding of a bell was that I had been in silence.  True Silence.  When that bell sounded so many noises came back into my consciousness.  The sound of the air conditioner at the back of the room.  The sound of the person next to me shuffling their feet or adjusting their position.  The sounds of others out in the hallway wandering past.  So many things that had simply vanished from my perception as I had focused on my divine word.

Later that day I was down on the banks of pond out behind the retreat center.  Here is an excerpt from my journal:

Silence is artificial.  There is no such thing; especially in nature.  I am sitting on the edge of a pond.  There are no people, but there is still so much noise.  As I sit, I practice the centering/focusing exercise from this morning.  This time it removed my inner thoughts but enhanced the noise of nature.  The birds, insects, wind, tress, and even the fish make so much noise.  But it is a different sort of noise.  If you listen closely it is, in a way, the noise of God.  It is not a man made distraction, but a God made reminder of life.

I think this understanding of silence is something we often lack in our society.   We are constantly searching for input, for stimulation, for something to do.  Maybe the goal should not be a search for silence, but instead a search to quiet our own minds so that we can be open to hearing the sounds around us?

I now question my earlier experience of “True Silence.”  Was that “True Silence” or simply man made artificial silence brought on by a facilitator during an exercise?  Maybe there is no such thing as silence?  Carolyn pointed out to me that not all man-made noise is necessarily a distraction from divinity.  Things like the conversations we had at orientation, or the beautifully crafted music of the organ, or even the voice of the facilitator can all bring a certain degree of understanding in divinity.  I think the search for silence is incredibly useful in my own spiritual life, but I guess you have to make your own choice as to how you balance the silence and noises in your life.

As I look forward to my years in Peru, I can’t help but realize how beautiful JVC’s emphasis on simply being with those whom you are living amongst is.  There will be many times where my duty will simply to be with someone.  Not to say anything, just to listen…even during those awkward moments of silence that occur in all conversation.  Will I be able to control my impulse to fill these awkward voids with useless chatter?  At first probably not, but as time goes on I hope to be more adept at careful listening and being.  Carolyn posed a great question to me while discussing this topic: “What do you think it means to enter into someone else’s silence?”  I don’t feel equipped to answer this question just yet.  At some point in the future I hope to return to it, but for now I leave it to you to ponder.