The Contemplative Self
MUCH OF today’s worship and prayer seems to be a closed system which does not allow for the validity of silence and solitude. I have been in that place myself where people told me silence and solitude was important, I tried it, but it did not seem to work.
But the work of silence and solitude may be the most important thing we do as disciples of the Still One.
It is interesting but if you look at things in the world slightly differently you can see how silence and stillness is built into the fabric of existence around us.
At the beginning of everything God spoke into the silence. From the beginning of our lives we have the connected silence and solitude of the womb, where the first sounds a baby will hear are her mother’s heartbeat and the sound of her blood pumping at around 16 weeks, two months before the ears are fully formed.
The mysterious process of quiet sleep is a place of silence and solitude making up a third of our life. The silence and stillness of a spider, or crouching tiger are God-given signs in the world that we just don’t see. Silence is more important to our well-being than we realise.
The attentiveness we develop in art or poetry which makes the world more fully present is another sign God has placed in the world to draw our attention to the importance of stillness.
Not being able to find a place of silence, as for tinnitus sufferers, can feel like a madness. We live in a kingdom of noise where there is almost nowhere to go to find silence. We are drowning in noise but we do not know it, we think we are waving.
A small amount of silence can be wonderful, but stretch it out a bit and suddenly it becomes a fearful place. A number of times in prayer meetings I have said ‘let’s wait on God in silence’, and within twenty seconds someone prays out loud.
The Desert Fathers whose work was silence tell us that a prolonged period of silence and solitude means we will have to ‘wrestle with our inner demons’. In fact when Abbot Moses was asked for a word of life he replied, ‘Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’ In other words the silence and solitude of the cell will teach you everything.
Silence and solitude especially within monastic settings has often been criticized as a withdrawal from life. But it is in silence and solitude we become aware of our connectedness to all things. It is in the kingdom of noise that we feel isolated and disconnected.
When Jesus healed the paralytic in Luke chapter five he was able to read the hearts of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. This is often attributed rightly to a prophetic gifting through the Holy Spirit, but just before this passage we read, ‘ Jesus often withdraw to lonely places and prayed.’ It is that work of silence and solitude that also enabled him to read hearts.
I have only begun to put the tiny crescent of a fingernail into the doorway of silence and solitude which is how we develop a contemplative self. It is a tiny splinter of sunlight in my heart that refuses to leave.
The goal of developing our contemplative self is to become awake and aware and compassionate like Jesus. The fourth century Syrian Ephrem said that in baptism we ‘put on the Wakeful One’. Noise puts us to sleep, silence and solitude awakens us to be like the ‘Wakeful One’ we have put on.
Perhaps the most important thing is that silence and solitude is our umbilical cord to God. Just like babies we can hear without having to hear through our ears. Without that guiding thread we lose our way in the competitive maze that is western culture.
We are so preoccupied in our minds with our own selfish chatter we have forgotten how to listen to God with our hearts, we do not know how to hear the words he tries to form in our inner being.
Another way of saying that we wrestle with our inner demons in silence and solitude is to say that the illusions about who we are are stripped away.
If the voices who say that silence and solitude are the turning point in Christian transformation are right then we need to find a way to get all Christians to embrace the vision.
In that silence and solitude we are ‘blessed’ with the greatest blessing of all, the gaze of a loving God and his loving presence when we ‘take to heart’ the word of God that has been revealed to us (Revelation 1:3).
The greatest challenge facing the church today is to get all Christians to take to heart this landscape of interior solitude, planting within it the transforming Word of God.