SURPRISED BY GOD IN SILENCE (PS 131, 1 Kings 19, Mark 9:1-9)***
ON MY MOTHER’S LAP
Picture a child sitting on her parent’s lap while watching a scary movie. The child is totally engrossed in the movie, to the point of forgetting that she is safely held in the parent’s lap. The movie is so absorbing and frightening that the child is terrified and feels unsafe and threatened. Only when the child is reminded of whom she is with, where she is, bringing her awareness to her body, and the immediacy of where she is sitting, does she remember that she is safely sitting in her parent’s lap and that there is nothing to fear because the movie is just a fictional story.
Sometimes, this is how we perceive life. We are like a child caught in the horrifying drama of a movie. Our minds constantly interpret life to us, imagining a whole world of possibility, regurgitating the past, anticipating the future. Of course, I am always the center of this drama. Because we are so caught up in this story, we are not aware of the reality of the presence of God that silently, secretly holds you throughout your whole life.
In our context here today, it is not difficult for our minds to easily get caught up in spirals of thoughts inflamed by images of war, stock markets crashing, pandemic consequences, personal health- and relationship issues.
Let’s take a closer look at this spine-chilling drama that we are trapped in. Most of what goes on in the internal cinema screen of our minds has never happened, nor will ever happen, or if it has happened, our interpretation of it is highly distorted and one-sided.
Elijah is a perfect example: In 1 Kings 17-18, the prophet rides on a wave of success. Everything seems to be going his way — confronting kings and followers of Baal, performing miracles, including raising the dead from their graves; he even calls lightning down from heaven.
But now, in 1 Kings 19, we find Elijah intimidated by Jezebel. Suddenly, despite all that happened before, he is highly fearful, with self-doubt, complaining that things are not going his way; depressed, he is perhaps even suicidal. (we get rare glimpse into his inner world.)…. Maybe good to be reminded that he is a truly faithful believer…
Neurobiological research has found that our minds cling to negative experiences like Velcro, causing our brains to be shaped by these experiences, while positive experiences slip like Teflon. Even our memories are affected by this, as we mainly remember harsh, negative, or fearful experiences. Rick Hanson, a neurobiologist who has done work in this area, describes it in this way: “…acquiring a big pile of negative experiences in implicit memory banks naturally makes a person more anxious, irritable and blue. Plus, it makes it harder to be patient and giving toward others.
If you observe your mind closely, you will notice how the mind amplifies anything negative if there is conflict, disharmony(triggers), or the possibility that somebody is displeased with me and turns that into my primary sense of reality. Any slight evidence that this could be happening is then fed into my internal amplifier and dialed up scary levels, which creates a whole imagined drama in my mind. Although this is invariably not true at this moment, its felt effects are very real, and my skewed perceptions are reinforced. This goes on throughout our lives, getting worse with age if the cycle is not dealt with. As a result, this continual negative, scary, self-reinforcing drama is replaying in our heads all the time.
The worst part of it is that we don’t even know it. We think that our mind’s representation IS reality, that this IS the shape of life. It is like being caught in a nightmare, and we don’t realize that just by waking up, the nightmare disappears.
I’m not saying that suffering does not happen — of course, suffering is very real in our lives. Just look at those in Ukraine suffering, but more often than not, we create additional suffering through our thought processes and imaginations. We think we are alone! We forget that the suffering happens in a bigger context of Gods presence!
Yes, this waking up is easier said than done, especially in our western culture, where we’ve become so highly mind-dominated that it is tough for us to conceive of any way being of connecting with God that that goes beyond our thoughts.
Richard Rohr points out that the greatest addiction in our society is not to alcohol or drugs, or even food, but to our way of thinking, and that most of our thoughts are repetitive and unhealthy. We like to think that we control our minds, but our minds mostly hold us. We get stuck in thinking patterns, and our minds become like washing machines, spinning around the same old thought processes.
Thomas Merton wrote: “Our minds are like crows. They pick up everything that glitters, no matter how uncomfortable our nests get with all that metal in them.” This is a lovely description of the mind’s obsessiveness with negativity, fear, busyness, commentaries, and stimulation and illustrates how uncomfortable and crowded this leaves our inner spaces.
PS 131 illustrates how I, when “occupying myself with things, too great and too marvellous for me,” robs me of my peace, security, and sanity. If an unhealthy ego and ambitions take over the center of our lives, we will not find inner peace and calm amid the turmoil. (O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high – pride)
Then how do we deal with the realities and all the inner turmoil in our minds? How do I thrive in the face of fear and terror? (There a deeply liberating invitations in PS 131, 1 Kings and Mark 9)
THE INVITATION: MEETING GOD IN SILENT PRAYER / CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER
One of the key ways of cutting across the mind’s incessant illusions, and unhealthy dynamics, and inner turmoil, is becoming aware of God’s surprising presence in SHEER SILENCE.
Elijah came to Mount Horeb after spending 40 days in the silence of the wilderness. It was on this same mountain that God first met Moses in a fiery bush; in the Exodus, God passed before Moses so that his face was shown with the glory of the Lord.
As he sleeps in the cave, where the word of the Lord comes to him twice, asking: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”…. That question drops deep into Elijah’s thoughts, emotions, will, and motives. He answers honestly, how his mind only remembers the threat and nothing about the wonderful victorious experiences of the past. He also reflects on his fear of the future. BUT GOD ASKS ABOUT HERE!!! What are you doing here?
God asks Elijah to go out and stand on the mountain, “for the Lord is about to pass by.” First, there is a wind that breaks down mountains and rocks. He did not experience the presence of God in the wind. Next was an earthquake. Elijah did not experience the presence of God in the wind. Then there was a fire, but God was not in the fire. After the fire, there was the sound of sheer silence… Elijah hears a sound of nothing, of silence. He met God in the silence. In the silence, he is so exposed and vulnerable that he immediately covers his face with his robe, for it is too overwhelming to face. He honestly shares with God his inner world. God responds by confirming his calling. He had to remember who he was in God’s eyes. THE SITUATION DID NOT CHANGE!! BUT, ELIJAH’s awareness of God changed!
One of the ways that God can release us from the grip of our unhealthy minds is through silence. Through the ages, this form of spirituality devolved as contemplative prayer of silent prayer or Centering Prayer.
Fr. Thomas Keating describes the work of Centering Prayer in this way: Centering Prayer is not so much the absence of thoughts as detachment from them. It is the opening of mind and heart, body, and emotions — our whole being — to God, the Ultimate Mystery, beyond words, thoughts, and emotions — beyond, in other words, the psychological content of the present moment. In centering prayer, we do not deny or repress what is in our conscious thinking process. We simply accept the fact of whatever is there and go beyond it, not by effort, but by letting go of whatever is there!
As in PS 131, Sitting on the lap of God as a loving, caring Mother, with all my illusions, fear, and anxiousness, but suddenly aware of being on the lap of a compassionate GOD! That changes everything:
Where I am… Not alone, but embraced by God.
Who I am…. Gods own, Gods Child, held and cared for and safe in the arms of God.
Oxford Dictionary defines Contemplative prayer as a form of Christian prayer in which a person seeks to pass beyond mental images and concepts to a direct experience of the divine.
Webster: a state of mystical awareness of God’s being
Wikipedia: a content-free mind directed towards the awareness of God as a living reality.
Thomas Dubay: a wordless awareness and love that we of ourselves cannot initiate or prolong
Centering Prayer emphasizes prayer as a personal relationship with God and a movement beyond conversation with Christ to communion with Him.
The experience of interior silence or “Resting in God” is beyond thinking, images, and emotions. (All the above are present, but the deepest reality is GODs holding)
The contemplative spirituality resonates deeply with reformed theology that confesses that GOD is the One who initiates and acts. We consent to and move with the gracious action of God in our lives. As the gardener cannot affect the growth of the sailor produce the wind. We intentionally surrender and consent to God’s presence and action.
Soren Kierkegaard wrote: As my prayer became more attentive and inward, I had less and less to say. I finally became completely silent… This is how it is. To pray does not mean to listen to oneself speaking. Prayer involves becoming silent, being silent, and waiting until God is heard.
Practicing silence is more than just experiencing external silence. It is not just the absence of sound. IT IS AN INTENTIONAL SILENCE with a fine-tuned awareness of God’s presence.! The reason why this spiritual exercise is so remarkably powerful is that it involves a choice, over and over again, to let go of thoughts, images, and distractions and to return in open-hearted surrender to the presence of God—waiting on the Lord—finding our hope and trust in the Lord.
It is a kind of deep silence that can be accessed amid WAR, TURMOIL, STORM, DEPRESSION, ANXIOUSNESS… Deeply rooted in the Stillness and presence of God.
Once you find the path to silence and see how close the deep Silence is to you, you can easily find the road to that silence.
It also provides a way for me to open myself to God’s presence and to the working of God’s grace deep within. As I let go of my own version of life, this opens me to the more spacious, loving, and generous sense of life that is already the truth; I just have to wake up to it.
In this sense, contemplation is an all-embracing quality of presence, including not only our own inner experience but also directly perceiving and responding to the situation and needs of the world around us. Rather than trying to balance contemplation and action, it is more accurate to see contemplation in action, undergirding and embracing everything. In this way, all our thoughts and actions can be joined together in prayer.
Silence creates space to listen! As the letter to James says in Chapter 1 says: if you talk, your tongue keeps you deaf. If you stay silent, you can listen deeply!
– You can become aware of your inner world: thoughts and feelings and unhealthy dynamics.
– Silence creates space to really listen to God!
– In Silence, you come home in God
– You come home in yourself.
– Just practicing to ground in BEING!
>>>> Listening to Needs of the world and RESPOND WISELY!
As our awareness of the mind’s habits and misinterpretation grows, we can start to see a bigger picture than these small narratives. As a result, we begin to feel a lot less threatened by life, and we develop an increasing capacity to welcome and stay with what is actually happening.
This allows us to be more generous and compassionate towards others, as we are not as caught up in our own interests and self-absorbed dramas as we used to be. Our capacity for compassion increases, both towards our own stuck, broken selves, as well as towards others in their humanity and brokenness. We can hold other people’s interests at heart because our perspective is not so distorted and self-interested.
We begin to experience a deep rootedness in God’s presence, although not as a clear image or personal presence, more as this “silent secret holding” of our life by our Divine parent. This is a very subtle awareness, which is why it feels like nothing to us at first, compared to the horrific drama that plays in our heads. It is an awareness that we grow into with practice. Still, it gradually becomes patterned into our being, our way of knowing and perceiving reality, opening new pathways for creative, compassionate, and life-giving responses.
In the so-called transfiguration story, we find Jesus going up the mountain as he did frequently for time of silence. And there, as Moses and Elijah experienced, God was present, revealing Who Jesus truly is! Son of God. It was not so much Jesus being transformed into someone else but revealing his true identity and calling. The same as with Moses and Elijah!
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Life Together (London: SCM Press, 1954), “Words are the instrument of the present world, but silence is the mystery of the future world.”
As we awaken from the nightmare drama, fear is not gone, but it is held in Deeper, Wider, more Present Silence of Gods Embrace. There is an inner holding, inner stability, and stillness rooted in God’s self. The focus is not on fear or any other uncomfortable emotion to go away but to be with the emotion in the presence of God. WE ARE NOT AFRAID OF FEAR ANYMORE!
Our spiritual life does not leave us without struggle, but it confronts and approaches fear differently!
As we awaken from the nightmare drama of our internal cinema screen, we become more aware that every moment is filled with sacredness and that God is here, now, with no condition and no exception.
A fine space, SHEER SILENCE, separates us from experiencing GOD as nowhere or now here. May you be surprised by God in SILENCE!
*** See Chapter 10 Contemplative Living Sharon Grussendorff