'STILL WATERS RUN DEEP' : AN ECSTASY OF SILENCE
Noise pollution is one of the casualties of modern living. As a result of this intense noise-based culture, even human identities are shaped around noises people make. There is no time or space left for quiet contemplation, and consequently opportunity for intimate interaction with God is lost. Discipleship cannot be realised without discipline. Psalmist’s exhortation, “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10), is fundamentally important for discipleship. Market economy and urbanised-culture have become a dominant influence, people are more comfortable in a crowded alien environment where they do not have to relate to anything; there seems to be a manufactured anonymity in a crowded airport, city centre, mega shopping centres or mega religious festivals. There is perceptible alienation in this crowded togetherness. Recently an elderly lady, in the north of England, who became a shopaholic to avoid intimacy with people died underneath the tons of goods she stored in her house. She accumulated so much unwanted goods over a sixteen year shopping spree, there was no more space to store anything more or to move about, and police had difficulty in finding her body underneath tons of goods she stored. Maybe we sometimes avoid silence, preferring whatever noise, words or distraction, because inner peace is a risky thing: it makes us empty, naked and vulnerable.
Thousands of young people from all over the world pray and sing together with the brothers of the Taize community in France. In the middle of each prayer, there is a long period of silence, a unique moment for meeting with God. In Psalm 131 for instance, we see calm confidence of silence: "Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with his mother; like a weaned child is the soul within me." Like the satisfied child who has stopped crying in mother’s arms, we can be so in the presence of God. Prayer then needs no words, maybe not even thoughts; it is a time for listening.
How is it possible to reach this inner silence? Sometimes we are apparently silent, and yet we have turbulence inside us: sometimes, awkward silence can descend on our attempts at polite conversation at precisely the wrong moment; we get a blank mind when we lose our thread of thoughts and forget what it is we want to say; menacing silence may dawn when two opponents accidentally meet; avoiding eye contact is one way of escaping such a situation, but thoughts may linger on. We often struggle with ourselves in our aloneness; in our aloneness, we encounter an internal dialogue, a voice in our mind chatting away, commenting upon events, reminiscing about the past or speculating about the future, debating what we are going to wear or have for dinner, or reflecting on a critical and damaging comment someone has made about us. Ruminating over hurtful comments requires honesty and a good sense of humour, and can be extremely revealing and healing.
On the other hand, apparent silence can take another route on making judgements on us and others, perhaps the feeling of pride when things go well but looking for an excuse and a scapegoat when they go wrong. We often do not think deeply through these events to see the whole picture. As long as we don’t pay too much attention to it, it remains a rather superficial commentator, skating over the surface of events, dealing in half-truths and darting about from topic to topic, often getting irritated. This state of mind reveals the great truth of the old proverbs, “Shallow brooks are noisy and Still waters run deep.” This idea is also reflected in the song “Deep Rivers move in silence; and shallow brooks are noisy.” However, if we decide to study criticisms or matters relating to personal relationships, preferably in a kind, grace-filled sort of way, suspending judgement, not trying to steer it in any particular direction and simply following wherever it wants to take us, it can lead us to the heart of the matter, to unresolved questions which we half knew existed but which we had never quite dared to face head on. We are embarking on a kind of ‘archaeology of the mind’ where what at first seems like pretty unpleasant muddy ground can turn out to conceal hidden treasures.
Purely analytical, systematic, and logical approach to relational problems without a divine dimension prevents us seeing the whole picture in the context of God’s unconditional love. This could be because our upbringing has conditioned us to feel happy about our scholastic temperaments and self sufficiency. ‘I think therefore I am’ is the slogan Rene Descartes coined for the modernist thinkers in the 17th century. However, in terms of pure relational and communal activities, it prevents a holistic appreciation of the things around us. Calming our souls requires a shock absorber, silence has that power; it is recognising that our worries can’t do much. Silence means leaving to God what is beyond our reach and capacity. A moment of silence is like an aspirin for our headaches.
The turmoil of our thoughts can be compared to the storm that struck the disciples’ boat on the Sea of Galilee while Jesus was sleeping. Like them, we may be helpless, full of anxiety, and incapable of calming ourselves. But Christ is able to come to our help. As he rebuked the wind and the sea and "there was a great calm" (Mark 4: 39); He can also calm our heart when it is agitated by fears and worries. Remaining silent, we trust and hope in God. When words and thoughts come to an end, in silence we begin to know God and his love. One of the themes that St. Paul develops through his prison letter to the Philippian Church is his experience of peace of Christ in a troubled and hostile environment. “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content……….I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11-13).
God spoke to Moses at Sinai in the midst of thunder and lightning (Exodus19). Centuries later, the prophet Elijah returned to the same mountain of God; where he experienced storm and earthquake and fire as his ancestors did, and he was ready to listen to God speaking in the thunder. But the Lord was not in any of the familiar mighty natural forces, sounds and signs. When all the noise was over, Elijah heard "a still small voice of the Lord” (1 Kings 19: 11-12). This is so beautifully expressed in the hymn, “Dear Lord and Father of mankind” by J.G. Whittier. God chose ‘still small voice of calm’ to speak to Elijah. God is silent and yet speaking. Silence makes us ready for a new experience with God. In silence, God’s word can reach the hidden corners of our hearts. When we try to express communion with God in words, our minds quickly come up short. But, in the depths of our being, through the Holy Spirit, Christ is talking far more than we imagine. Although God never stops trying to communicate with us, this is never in order to impose. The voice of God is often heard only in a whisper, in a breath of silence. Remaining in silence in God’s presence, open to the Holy Spirit, our silence is a pleasing prayer to our Lord. The road to contemplation is not one of achieving inner silence at all costs by following some techniques that create a kind of emptiness within.
Perhaps one of the strangest and most complete silences I’ve come across was many years ago when I was listening to the great Indian teacher, Jiddu Krishnamurti. There were about 3000 people listening to him on that beautiful autumn morning at Brockwood Park, Hampshire; he was about 80 years old and spoke with authority and with free flowing rhetoric eloquence on the importance of meditation for 45 minutes. People listened to him in silence, waiting for his words to fall on their ear drums with great attention, and reverence. At the end of the talk he silently and elegantly walked away with an extraordinary spiritual authority, his voice faded away into the autumn breeze, but three thousand people sat there in absolute silence for another three minutes. Then and there I experienced the real power of silence, I still can feel and float into that time and to that silence beautifully, it is a moment of ecstatic experience that I have always cherished. There are other instances of enjoying this ‘provocative silence’ when looking into the landscapes of Constable or seascapes of Turner.
I have experienced such silence in the vast expanses of St. Peter’s Basilica at Vatican and also while watching the mighty roaring Niagara Falls. Yes, there is a kind of inner silence in the midst of thundering sounds; you feel it within you in some amazing God-given moments. Let me give you a glimpse of the beauty of silence that Krishnamurti wrote about: “There is the silence between two noises, the silence between two notes and the widening silence in the interval between two thoughts. There is that peculiar, quiet, pervading silence that comes of an evening in the country; there is the silence through which you hear the bark of a dog in the distance or the whistle of a train as it comes up a steep grade.…There is the silence of an old deserted house, and the silence of a mountain; the silence between two human beings when they have seen the same thing, felt the same thing, and acted. That night, particularly in that distant valley with the most ancient hills with their peculiar-shaped boulders, the silence was as real as the wall you touched. And you looked out of the window at the brilliant stars."1 This is an example of the ineffability of religious experience William James wrote about in ‘Varieties of Religious Experience.’
If one’s heart is pure and clean, with no selfishness or greed, one can feel God’s presence when one prays. This was indeed the essence of Raamakirshna Pramahamsa’s teachings; one must have a pure heart to have a vision of Almighty. “The still waters of a pond reflect the sky and the trees and bushes on the bank absolutely clearly. When a wind disturbs the surface of the water, the images get distorted beyond recognition. Or even disappear altogether. Our vision of God is similarly distorted or disturbed by the moss of greed or the winds of anger, desires and jealousy lurking in our mind and heart. We must get rid of these to be able to see even a glimpse of Him. When our mind is pure and serene, we begin to see Him, but at the slightest intrusion of selfishness into our heart, He vanishes.”2 In silence, we stop hiding from God; the light of Christ can reach, heal and transform even what we are ashamed of. Christ says: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you" (John 15:12). We need silence in order to welcome these words and put them into practice. When we are agitated and restless, we have so many arguments and reasons not to forgive and not to love too easily. But when we "have calmed and quieted our soul", these reasons turn out to be quite insignificant. Silence is a humble yet secure path to loving. This silence has the power to ‘immerse us in the infinite ocean of God.’
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