As soon as they had finished, he made his disciples embark and cross to Bethsaida ahead of him, while he himself dismissed the crowd. After taking leave of them, he went up into the hills to pray. It was not late and the boat was already far out on the sea. And Jesus was alone.
The quintessential act of modern life. A person walks into a room, fumbles for the remote and turns on the television. I do it. You do it. Thereby obliterating the three rarest commodities of our age: silence, solitude, darkness. Weather one hundred times a day. Sportscenter. Fox “Around the world in eighty seconds.” The Comedy Channel. Ted Turner’s many channels. Now add to all that the chirp of the cell phone, playing the William Tell Overture. A minister tells how one went off during his prayer, and the man answered it and proceeded with a conversation in a low but audible voice. And now there is the Ipod in which, as I have been informed, you can store 5,000 songs. Enough to occupy your ears 24 hours a day. So much for silence.
The number of places where a person can escape the cacophony of sounds becomes smaller every year. It used to be that a person could go to his dentist and count on some undisturbed suffering which would help him grasp the shortness of life and the agony of the flesh. No longer! Nowadays, while the drill bites his nerve endings, he will be entertained by an invisible orchestra performing “The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers’ through a hole in the ceiling.”
Don’t you find it so? We live in a world which has banished silence. When was the last time you found yourself in real quiet? As we interred a friend in the churchyard a few weeks ago, a 747 flew overhead, the lawn mowers of the lawn service started up, and the bells went off across the street.
So what, you say. Well, it is interesting how the Biblical story seems to think that silence is of real consequence to any life of reflection, meaning, relationship to God. Why the concern with silence, quiet, being still? For starters it is exceedingly difficult to become quiet inside, if it is not relatively quiet outside, for us to create and maintain any kind of inner peace and tranquility, and thus function effectively and intentionally, when we are constantly bombarded with external stimuli, sounds and sights. A central quiet and serenity in the midst of life’s tasks and troubles that enables us to maintain a sound mind and sense of perspective: this can be sustained only if we create moments, hours, an occasional day of relative silence.
Susan Smith Jones, author of Choose to be Healthy, writes: “Those people who live in a constantly noisy environment and who neglect to go inside their temple to listen to the silence are depriving themselves of one of life’s most profound experiences. Unmitigated loudness breeds agitation, aggression, and disharmony. Noise deafens the mind to the inner voice, to our connection to all life, to peace and joy.”
So why do we seem so addicted to it? Why do we turn on the radio when we get in the car? One young friend told she could not drive with it off. And I dare say you have heard it through solid glass at street corners, booming away in the hot auto next to you.
A measure of this may be quite innocent, a form of company when alone, a source of information and entertainment. But when it is constant, when we are uneasy without it, when we have to have some background noise, something more serious may be going on. So why do we find it so difficult? I suspect, we feel out of control. Busy doing, thinking, running, talking, watching is a way of maintaining inner control against the anxieties, the vagrant worries, that we encounter if we stop and are still. Is it a form of distraction from thoughts and feelings that we might find troubling or challenging, distraction from thought in any form. We seem to live in a sensate world where feeling trumps reflection, where introspection is avoided. Is it a form of drug, these sights and sounds, that enables us to escape the real world into that of beat and fantasy.
Perhaps the better way to ask the question, is to ask about what we are missing with the absence of silence in our lives. I think first of all, we tend to lose touch with ourselves. It takes some measure of silence to know ourselves, to become aware of who we are, what makes us tick, what kind of person we are and what kind of person we want to become. “Know thyself,” said the oracle. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” insists Socrates. And the Psalmist cries, “Search me, O God, and know my heart. Try me and know my ways.” Where? In the middle of the Edens Expressway? On the runway, waiting to take off? Come to think of it. You might learn some things about yourself right there.
Actor Kirk Douglas recalled an encounter with a hitchhiker he picked up one afternoon. “I picked up a young sailor who was on weekend leave. He jumped into the seat beside me, took one look at me and exclaimed, “Hey! Do you know who you are?” “Now that’s a very good question,” mused Douglas. “That’s a question I have got to spend more time on.”
But normally it takes some time apart, alone with our thoughts, our memories, our hopes and dreams, to truly develop a healthy self-awareness so that we can live an authentic life, armored against the fads, the pressures, the seductions of a media culture that is always trying to make us over, take us over.
So the late Dr. Menninger down at his Institute in Topeka used to urge the executives who came there to set aside time…time to decide where you are going, what are your priorities, what are your ambitions? Do you know whether you are going in the right direction, and most of all, who do you want to become and where?”
The Chicago poet, Carl Sandburg, testified, “A man must get away now and then. I go out there and walk and look at the trees and sky. I listen to the sounds of loneliness. I sit on a rock or stump and say to myself, “Who are you, Sandburg? Where have you been and where are you going?”
We need silence to stay in touch with ourselves, who we are and most profoundly want to be. And we need silence, time apart, on behalf of our relationships with others. This may sound strange, but it is in quiet that we can become sensitive again to the needs of those dearest to us, whereas in the noise and hurry of the occupied mind we lose touch with the better side of our souls.
Donald Spoto, in his remarkable work, The Hidden Jesus, lifts up silence as necessary both for our relationship to ourselves and to those with whom we share life’s way. “At the end of the twentieth century, it seems that we have made the noisiest, loudest society in the history of the world — and the most confused. An orgy of noises robs us of portions of our very being; announcers shout; music, movies and plays are over-amplified; traffic becomes noisier each year; advertisements become more intrusive in the media. The effect of exaggerated sound and constant noise on the central nervous system of humans and animals is only just beginning to be felt; it seems to be a kind of madness, a dislocation of ourselves from ourselves.
“Related to this is the speed and volume of communication and of travel, all of which is thought necessary simply because it is possible. Today we have the information superhighway, the communications explosion, the Internet, the ubiquitous probing of the media – asking questions, telling us things to frighten us or things to shock us or things to make us envious. We have constant commentary on just about everything, endless chatter and that modern artifact, the ‘talk show’ — a curiosity in itself, for now ‘talk’ has become a matter for ‘show.’ Yet despite the incessant noise, as numbing as background music in stores and elevators, there is very little depth and less reality in relationships: for all the talk, there is precious little communication.”
A physician tells of how he walks alone. “I suddenly realize I’m just one guy walking in this universe; it gives me a perspective on myself and my relationships. When I have no ties, no appointments, when I walk in silence, I feel something that must be similar to what the astronauts feel in space, or what passengers feel on the deck of an ocean liner at dawn. I am small in time and space and life, suddenly I am more precious to myself and have infinitely more to give to those I really care about.”
I confess that I need time alone and quiet to reflect on how I have failed those I love, so that I can return to them a little more determined to be there truly with them when I am with them. But hard to find the time, isn’t it? I am certain that Jesus went off alone in the silence of the hills on behalf of his life with those disciples. He sent them away so that he could be better with them and for them another day.
To know ourselves more deeply and one another more sensitively. And then, and most importantly, to know God. Or better put, to stay aware of the reality and presence of that mystery who is the foundation of our very lives. I find it provocative how this Biblical God is said to be known only in silence, outer, but more important, inner silence, where we shut down the chatter and cares, the cross talk that so dominates our brains most hours, and truly become quiet. “Be still and know that I am God.”
Perhaps you remember the old story. Elijah, threatened with death by Jezebel, the pagan queen, flees all the way back to Sinai where Moses received the Ten Commandments. There on that barren mountain a mighty hurricane split the mountain and shattered the rocks. But God was not in the hurricane. And then came an earthquake and fire. But God was not in the earthquake and fire. But after the fire, came, and here most scholars now agree that the correct translation is this, came the sound of sheer silence. And in the silence was God. Marlene and I have been there and we have heard this sound of sheer silence in the black of night waiting for God. I don’t know if we have ever felt him more powerfully present.
We meet him when we shut up and shut down, turn off the sounds of this world, and wait in the stillness. There are other broadcasts, on wavelengths that do not appear on our cable boxes, other commentaries, which do not appear in the back pages of newspapers. These natural broadcasts are timeless – low, resonant only in stillness. They are easily jammed—we don’t have to be in the woods to hear them, but we have to be quiet.
We are past the point in human history where the deep currents of existence belong to us by birthright — we have to fight to block out some of the endless rain of information, entertainment, stress. We have to fight to walk into a room and savor the quiet. To get started we have to take the long view and remind ourselves that no one ever lay on his deathbed wishing he’d watched one more episode of — write in your favorite.
I have always been somewhat amused by many who are fighting to keep the ten commandments before the public eye, an endeavor that I do understand. Except I wonder how many have any intention of giving one seventh of their waking hours paying attention to God. The Sabbath command means literally “stop doing what you are doing.”
So Psalm 46 says, “Be still and know that I am God.” Isaiah 30 insists, “In quietness is your strength.” Psalm 37 advises, “Be still before the Lord.” Think of what it means to shut down and be silent. To cease the eternal chatter going on between our ears, to let go of the fears and needs that dominate and drive us, the regrets of yesterday and the hopes for tomorrow, to make a space for the God who makes himself known to silence, the silence in which we let go of ourselves a bit and try to become present to his presence.
I remember visiting one time a friend, whom illness had confined to home for long weeks—an active man, accomplished in his profession, busy serving in church and community. A man who initially found his confinement irritating, not to mention often exasperating, busy active type that he was. But over the weeks an interesting change began to occur. As he more and more learned to accept the solitary quiet of his situation, one noticed a certain depth and serenity develop in him that was quite noticeable and remarkable.
Finally one day, he said it, “You know,i f you had said to me six months ago, that I would one day thank God for this confinement, I would have called you crazy. But a strange thing has happened. After I got over the initial frustration and quit fighting the loneliness, after I had seen all the soaps I care to see in a life-time and turned that thing off, I began to learn a quiet and peace entirely foreign to the likes of me. And there are even times when there is a sense of a presence that is almost tangible. I have really come to know that lonely as I often am, I am not alone.”
So quiet attention is essential not only for a discovery of who we are, what we are thinking, where we are going in our lives with those around us. It is an absolute requirement if we are to allow God to be God for us. In his presence, we experience our dependency; that too is a part of the good news, for we know that we simply cannot heal all our wounds, we cannot provide ultimate meaning for our lives. The source of it is elsewhere. “Be still and know that I am God.”
Ran into a little song not long ago which I have come to love and so keep near on my desk. Some of the words go like this. I lift my eyes to the quiet hills in the press of a busy day; as green hills stand in a dusty land so God is my strength and stay. I lift my eyes to the quiet hills, to a calm that is mine to share; secure and still in the Father’s will and kept by the Father’s care. I lift my eyes to the quiet hills and my heart to the Father’s throne; in all my ways to the end of days the Lord will preserve his own.
And Jesus was alone.