Stepping Into Silence

I am thinking these days I simply can’t control the world. “Duh,” you might say, “you’re just getting that figured out?” Well, yes, maybe, but I am convinced we all live with the illusion that we are in control. Or we think we need to be. We’ve got to make those we love into something more suitable to our ideal. We’ve got to shape the troubled world, surely, into something better than it is. We’ve got to reconfigure the thinking those who disagree with us. Of course we never measure up ourselves—we’ve got to get more fit and healthier, kinder, more knowledgeable, better at what we do, more everything. It’s all a heavy burden. We carry this burden with us every minute of the day. At least I do.

For many centuries now, in the Western world at least, we have been conditioned to believe we are the ones in control. When our culture took God completely out of the picture, we then became the self-designated drivers of the world. And so we scurry about trying desperately to corral things into some meaningful order. We try to shape things according to our own notions of what is good, what is true or beautiful. Sometimes that works. Most of the time it doesn’t. Things too often just slither away out of our reach.

Well . . . let’s take a deep breath. There is actually good news here. At some point in our lives things come crashing down around our feet. We experience loss, rejection, a turn of circumstances—things seem utterly beyond our control. But here’s the remarkable thing: Painful though it may be, beyond the collapse, we feel enormous relief. When we finally discover we can’t remake the world into our image, maybe then we can say: You mean I don’t have to reshape the world? You mean I can’t, even if I want to?

There is an ancient practice that turns this whole thing inside-out. It’s called contemplative prayer. I’ve been trying of late to enter more deeply into this ancient Christian practice. There are various techniques and certain practical approaches, but basically this kind of prayer tries to quiet the mind. That’s the centerpiece. It seeks out silence so our thoughts no longer come between us and genuine closeness to God. As we introduce ourselves to the eloquent writing over the centuries of these contemplatives, we realize we have simply lost the ability to practice silence.

According to this great tradition, here’s what happens: As we enter into the silence of prayer, we actually enter into the presence of the living God. As we calm the incessant chatter that fills our minds, this is where God meets us face to face. We do this daily, for me early in the morning. We do it in a certain quiet space in the house. When we reach that silence, though, we let go. We surrender control. We realize we don’t have to keep up the battle anymore. We recognize there is no battle. We recognize that our thoughts are not the final arbiter of much of anything, or that our thoughts are most vital when they are aligned with someone far greater than ourselves.

And this is where joy begins. Do we get a lot of joy out of constantly thinking we need to change everything? Well, actually, no. We load ourselves up with anxiety and frustration and disappointment. Joy does not happen when we are striving and churning to rearrange the world, our lives, the lives of others. Joy comes when we quiet ourselves in God’s presence. Joy comes out of silence in the presence of the living God. We work outward from this silence with new love for others, ourselves, our world. It works. I am convinced of it.

So, I am asking myself these days, what if I start my day in the presence of a lavishly loving God? What if my obsessive thoughts become small and fleeting? What if my thoughts line up around someone so much bigger than I am? This is what the great mystics and saints and contemplatives teach us. Oh sure, I will keep trying to change myself and change the world, but maybe, just maybe, I can find a new peace to settle around my efforts. Maybe that new peace will settle around my days. What a relief. What new freedom. What joy.