Israel lived through centuries of Divine silence; then came the Word and angels sang. Hundreds of years of stillness ended when God spoke Himself into the world. This occurrence, like so many of those in Scripture, serves not only as an historical account but as an instructive tale: It admonishes us, “Wait! Be silent!”
Be still, God says, and in that stillness you will come to know Me (Psalm 46:10).
Yet stillness does not come easily. We eternal souls, entwined with mortal bodies, are passing through time in creation. We have a predisposition to motion—it is an essential warp and weft of ourselves. This is why music is biblically depicted as highest praise to God, and perhaps why George MacDonald wrote that the heavenly are “the regions where there is only life and therefore all that is not music is silence” (from Unspoken Sermons, First Series, The Hands of the Father).
The ancient philosopher Heraclitus has left us a fragment (see text notes on B49a) that sums up our human experience well: “We step and do not step in to the same rivers; we are and are not.” It is from this, perhaps, that not only our restlessness and noisiness arise but our impatience surfaces, as well, propelling us to rush, grasp, clench our hands around whatever it is that we seek; whatever we want to freeze in time; whatever we want to keep for ourselves.
Most ancient sages concluded that we seek what we perceive to be good, but as Shakespeare warned in The Merchant of Venice, “all that glitters is not gold” (one reason why we may fall so easily into Dante’s infernal Gorgon’s trap through love of worldliness, and our hearts can forever be set in stone). Our natural desires strive boldly and habitually to behold and take unto and into ourselves what we perceive to be true, good, and beautiful. The problem with this is that in this weave of time we easily stumble because of our intrinsic flux, our struggle with cultivating stillness and enduring silence, our rejection of waiting. In our haste, we trip; we often inadvertently and mistakenly seek not the reality of truth, goodness, and beauty but their mirage.
The Scriptures frequently paint a picture of time-bound men and women as creatures of blind impatience: Beguiled Eve could not wait upon God but reached for forbidden fruit; Abraham could not stay himself upon God’s words but did as Sarah asked when she urged him to lie with Hagar; Rebekah and Jacob squirmed in the hand of God and through trickery snatched at the inheritance already promised; Martha could not perceive that by waiting on her guest hand and foot she did not truly wait upon her God at all.
Throughout the Bible, story after story teaches us that we already have everything promised, if only we can withstand—or perhaps cultivate is a better way to put it—stillness and silence.
It is in our mute moments that the Spirit—Ruach Elohim, the wind of God—stirs.
This problem is exacerbated because we not only have an innate disposition towards motion and change augmented by an impatience to pursue what we think we want, but we have a complex, somewhat confused aversion to stillness. In the 1600s Pascal wrote in his Pensées that:
[Men] have a secret instinct which impels them to seek amusement and occupation abroad, and which arises from the sense of their constant unhappiness. They have another secret instinct, a remnant of the greatness of our original nature, which teaches them that happiness in reality consists only in rest, and not in stir. And of these two contrary instincts they form within themselves a confused idea, which hides itself from their view in the depths of their soul, inciting them to aim at rest through excitement, and always to fancy that the satisfaction which they have not will come to them, if, by surmounting whatever difficulties confront them, they can thereby open the door to rest.
Thus passes away all man’s life. Men seek rest in a struggle against difficulties; and when they have conquered these, rest becomes insufferable. (139)
Indeed, isn’t it restless, noisy hurriedness that most often leads us to unwanted places? We don’t listen well and overlook the real questions . . . and therefore we miss real responses; we copy down questions incorrectly and end up with inappropriate solutions; we rush through problems and skip steps in our eagerness to come to conclusions and along the way we get off track and then cannot quite seem to pin down why. We are in a rush to grab what often ends up being inadequate, if not outright inaccurate.
In our headlong urgency we also leap over the momentous experience of understanding—of comprehension— itself. Even if we happen upon decent resolutions (or more rarely, hit upon good insights) we often have no idea how we actually got there and we understand the results we’ve reached even less. Indeed, as Sir Walter Scott penned in his poem, Marmion, “What a tangled web we weave.” Perhaps this is so not always through outright intent to be false but through our own misguided, clamorous haste.
God’s people were promised Epiphany, and in the biblical account of one of the greatest moments in history, He arrived. Over and over again, God’s promises are kept—those seemingly big as well as those seemingly small are incarnated in our world. Today, in our 21st century’s speedy and inattentive trajectory towards an uncharted future, many have forgotten that God still promises epiphany – in the fullest, incarnational sense: The epiphany of knowledge of God in our daily lives, not to mention the epiphany when we will see face to face, knowing no longer in part but knowing even as we are known (1 Corinthians 13:12).
One thing is becoming clearer to me all the time: in order to be prepared for the latter, we are exhorted to engage in the former. We are advised to liturgically rehearse, through daily epiphanies, for a culminating yet eternally present moment. We desperately need to learn to practice these everyday flashes of still quietude. This is precisely so that we can prepare, and will thereby be ready for final Epiphany: that everlasting time in which we will behold the Lamb.
It is in our mute (and what often seems from our perspective like strangely stalled) moments that the Spirit—Ruach Elohim, the wind of God—stirs.
How then to cultivate this stillness? How to habitually practice keeping the oil ready in our lamps?
Most of us in these turbulently distracting times would be surprised to consider that we can do so through education, through academic diligence. We can nurture stillness when we, as some like to say, ‘do school.’ Simone Weil writes in Waiting for God:
[E]very time that a human being succeeds in making an effort of attention with the sole idea of increasing his grasp of truth, he acquires a greater spiritual aptitude for grasping it, even if his effort produces no visible fruit…In every school exercise there is a special way of waiting upon truth, setting our hearts upon it, yet not allowing ourselves to go out in search of it. There is a way of giving our attention to the data of a problem in geometry without trying to find the solution or the words of a Latin or Greek text without trying to arrive at the meaning, a way of waiting…Our first duty toward school children and students is to make known this method to them… (“Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”).
Weil encourages us to nurture waiting—or, if you will, to cultivate quiet stillness—in students. It can be through this means, this dwelling with and being calm before the sometimes whirling intricacies and complexities of academic endeavors, that we may help our students learn to practice quietude in expectation of the thrill of the ‘aha moment’ (as opposed to the rush of entertained distraction); thereby helping them to be blessed with the experience of basking in the brilliant flicker of epiphany.
In academic moments of high ambiguity, uncertainty, and subsequent insecurity—when faced with a difficult literary passage to read or a complex calculus problem to unravel, for example—when lack of understanding in unpracticed circumstances would cause frustration (or perhaps anger or even possibly despair—reactions many of us who teach have learned to recognize quickly when they arise in our students), we can help students see and learn how to draw back into a still quiet and wait for the truth to be revealed rather than grasping for it with clouded vision, in haste and cacophony. This is, in fact, one of the greatest benefits of practicing the art of writing; a process in which we dwell with ideas long enough for them to coalesce for us, and take coherent form.
Thomas Taherne writes in Centuries of Meditations, “What is more easy and sweet than meditation? Yet in this hath God commended His Love, that by meditation it is enjoyed. As nothing is more easy than to think, so nothing is more difficult than to think well” (“First Century,” 8). Thus in nurturing this state of soul in the moment we are able, as C.S. Lewis explains in The Screwtape Letters, to be sanctified through love by the One from whom all reality flows: “For the Present is the point at which at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience of which [God] has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them” (Letter XV).
Dorothy Sayers recapitulates something along these lines when she writes in The Mind of the Maker that “identity is in fact attained in inverse ratio to the consciousness of the creature. A perfect identity of the creature with its creator’s will is possible only when the creature is unself-conscious” (IX, “The Love of the Creature”).
This, when achieved, is what draws us to a point of becoming so much unconscious of ourselves—and our desires to obtain what we perceive as good rather than waiting for it to be given to us—that we become, as a consequence, the most naturally and entirely ourselves; we become precisely the sons and daughters our Creator intends us to be.
In the Doxology, we sing to the God from whom all blessings flow. In our lives, we are called to nurture a present-moment receptivity to His blessings.
May we, and, through our example, our students, be liturgically practiced in these moments of stillness; may we be regularly drawn out in this way; may the Spirit gust, lifting us on a heavenly chariot’s wings.