Silence

Three Monks and One Sees

Benedicta Ward’s book has this story:

There were three friends, serious men, who became monks. One of them chose to make peace between men who were at odds, as it is written, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ (Matt. 5:9). The second chose to visit the sick. The third chose to go away to be quiet in solitude. Now the first, toiling among contentions, was not able to settle all quarrels and, overcome with weariness, he went to him who tended the sick, and found hims also failing in spirit and unable to carry out his purpose. So the two went away to see hims who had withdrawn into the desert, and they told him their troubles. They asked him to tell them how he himself had fared. He was silent for a while, and then poured water into a vessel and said, ‘Look at the water.’ and it was murky. After a little while he said again, ‘See now, how clear the water has become.’ As they looked into the water they saw their own faces, as in a mirror. They he said to them, ‘So it is with anyone who lives in a crowd; because of the turbulence, he does not see his sins: but when he has been quiet, above all in solitude, then he recognizes his own faults.’

Today there are two major camps in the UMC. One claims the importance of peacemaking (Conservatives) while others are claiming the importance of tending to the sick (Liberals). Both camps have a good and Biblical claim on their task, and both are making good on the call. However, we now find ourselves in a bind where both camps are failing in spirit and there is such a turbulence in the Church. Neither camp sees the value of being quiet and still. Both camps are righteous in their cause and pouring water out, baptizing the work they do. Neither camp can see, as they churn up water, that we are drowning.

Photo by  Haley Phelps  on  Unsplash

The flailing and hand waving and crying out all is in an effort to ensure we can all stay a float through these troubled waters. It is the wisdom of the third monk that we need. The one who elevates silence, stillness, patience. Of course we do not give any merit to such posturing as it is seen as irrelevant and useless (all the while forgetting that Nouwen cautions us to the temptation of relevancy and that prayer is being “useless”).

And so what is the local church and church leader to do? How can we harness the wisdom of the third monk? Perhaps we can at least recall Soren Kierkegaard, who said, “Faith is like floating in seventy thousand fathoms of water. If you struggle, if you tense up and thrash about, you will eventually sink. But if you relax and trust, you will float.”

Church leaders, there is nothing wrong with the wisdom of the third monk. There is nothing wrong with stillness, waiting and trusting. There is nothing wrong with not doing “something”. There is nothing wrong with trusting in the buoyancy of God.

Is that not our call?

My Doing Impacts My Vision

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I love the idea of being still, but my own sense of self-worth is wrapped up in "doing". There is a great little story from the desert teachers in the Christian tradition that goes something like this:

So the two went away to see him who had withdrawn into the desert, and they told him their troubles. They asked him to tell them how he himself had fared. He was silent for a while, and then poured water into a vessel and said, ‘Look at the water,’ and it was murky. After a little while he said again, ‘See now, how clear the water has become.’ As they looked into the water they saw their own faces, as in a mirror. Then he said to them, ‘So it is with anyone who lives in a crowd; because of the turbulence, he does not see his sins: but when he has been quiet, above all in solitude, then he recognizes his own faults.’

The irony of course is that in all my "doing" I cloud up the waters and cannot see very well. I then think that since I cannot see very well it must be because I am not working hard enough to see clearly, so I work and stir up the waters even more. 

I love to see clearly. I struggle to be still. 

Sit in your cell for it will teach you everything

Too many times we think that spirituality is something that we do. Perhaps it is our need to feel like we are in control of our own lives or perhaps it is just the way we have been taught, but doing is often not helpful for spiritual formation. 

There was a desert father called Abba Moses who once said, "Go sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything." It was also said that a monk outside of his cell is like a fish out of water, only able to live for a little while. 

Why would sitting in a cell be the great teacher to Abba Moses and the other desert Christians? 

I would suggest that sitting in a silent and quiet place helps God find us. 

Imagine you are in a totally dark forest. Imagine that God is also in this forest. You each are looking for each other. Because you are both moving it is much harder to locate each other. Your yelling out for God drowns out the still small voice of the one you are searching for. Groping among the trees, you grow frustrated at your inability to find the source of all life and love. And so you sit down.

And when you sit down, you finally hear what you could not hear before. You hear the still small voice. And, in due time, God finds you. 

Sit in your cell, for it will teach you everything.  

Why don't we hear God like people did in the OT?

Every now and again I am asked why don't we hear God the way people heard God in the Bible? No more burning bushes, no voices from the sky, no walking in a garden chatting about the days activities. I am not going to get into the discussion about if these events were historically accurate or if they are metaphor or myth or some hallucination resulting in Moses eating some odd desert flower. What I am interested in discussing is an underlying assumption in the question: what does God sound like. 

St. John of the Cross said that the first language of God is silence. And if we are made in the image of God then the first language of humans might also be silence. If that is the case, then why do we seek out to "hear" God the way we would hear other noises? Do you and I know how to listen to the silence? It does not seem like we as a people embrace silence. In many ways it seems like we are like the children of later generations who no longer speak the "old language" of our ancestors. Third generation German Americans or Mexican Americans may not know how to speak or hear their grandparent's native tongue. So too we have become so removed from our native tongue that we cannot even hear silence the way we used to. 

As they say with all languages, you use it or you lose it. Perhaps we are losing the language of silence? 

Finally, if God's first language is silence and our first language is noise, should it be so shocking that even if we hear God there would be translation and interpretation problems?