The world is too loud. Period. I offer that observation as our next step in trying to hear what God has to say. I've made the claim that God speaks. I was driving downtown the other day and passed the local United Church of Christ congregation sporting a banner out front that boldly proclaimed "God is Still Speaking.' Indeed!…So why don't we hear it? One reason is that the world is too loud. God is still speaking, but God is not shouting. God is evidently under no obligation to shout over our noise and busyness in order to be heard. We had two kinds of teachers growing up. There was the kind that would raise their voice loud enough to shout us into obedience and silence. Then there was Mr. Caskey my history teacher. He would simply speak in a normal, calm tone, going on with the business at hand like what material would be on the upcoming test. If we wanted to hear, we had to shut up and listen. That's how God works. We have to quiet down. I used to think that God had more to say in ancient times. But that's not it. In the ancient days of campfires, starlit nights and silent temples, silence was a much easier commodity to come by. There was no traffic, no planes overhead, no radios blaring. It was a slower, quieter reality. We are so unfamiliar with silence because we insist on drowning it out with news, noise, music, or TV. We create artificial background noise that is around us all day long. Then we naively think that ten minutes of prayer at bedtime will be enough to tap into the Creator of the cosmos. We will need to turn off the noise.
How to Get Quiet
First of all, we can't do much to change how many planes fly overhead or how much traffic drives by our house, so we may need to get away to a more quiet spot. I love the forest, but I don't have the time to drive out into the woods every day. I can choose to turn off the noise. I can drive without the radio or iPod playing. I can turn off the television. I can stay off the computer. I can slow down and take it easy. If the traffic is still too loud, I can always buy a box of ear plugs at the drug store and have all the silence I want anywhere I want it. These things are completely within our control. But just sitting in a quiet room may not be enough. We are often shocked to learn how loudly our own thoughts are blaring inside our heads.
The noise inside our own minds is uncharted territory for most of us and it takes time in silence to get there. To truly hear God the following formula is all we need:
"When we are as quiet on the inside as the world outside, we are ready to hear God."
How can we be "loud on the inside?" Our thoughts. I once spent five days straight in a tree stand in the forest during hunting season from sunrise to sunset in complete silence. I was as still and silent as the forest was still and silent. With nothing moving, no noise, no outside stimulus to respond to, all I had were the thoughts in my head. By day three my thoughts were so loud I wanted to plug my ears! This is why prisoners placed in solitary confinement for long periods of time suffer psychological and emotional damage. I can't make my brain stop thinking because that is what brains do. Trying not to think is like trying to keep your heart from beating. There is a remedy to find peace and silence within. There is a form of prayer called "contemplative prayer" that is not about talking or listening, but about rest and silence. Father Thomas Keating of "Contemplative Outreach" has spent years teaching others how to find this peace and rest in God. He offers some steps we can take to enter silence and listen for the Presence of God within.
Practicing Contemplative Prayer
STEP ONE. First of all, get away and slow down. We must first make the effort to take a break and find some quiet, out of the way place. Psalm 46:10 states "Be still and know that I am God." Be still means, slow down, settle down, stop, relax. Settle down and relax in a quiet silent place. I find this, not only relaxing, but a great way to practice humility as I trust God to take care of things while I allow the world to turn on its own for awhile.
STEP TWO. Stay there until you are as quiet on the inside as it is on the outside around us. The biggest obstacle to the quiet on the inside is the constant barrage of distracting thoughts in our head. It is impossible to stop thinking. It's what our brain does, all the time. It even thinks when we are asleep, which is why we have dreams. The trick is not to stop thinking, but to stop paying attention to those thoughts. Father Thomas Keating, in his book "Centering Prayer" explains it in a way that really makes sense.
As we look within ourselves, we are becoming aware of our soul, which is the spiritual part of us. That's also where the Holy Spirit lives within us. Father Keating encourages us to imagine looking down from above on a river filled with boats. Our ordinary thoughts are like boats sitting on a river that are so closely packed together that we cannot see the water that is holding them up. We can't keep them from coming, but the less time we spend examining and inspecting every boat, the sooner they can continue on their way downstream. Likewise, the less time we spend examining and inspecting every thought, the sooner it can continue on its way. The more we send the boats downstream, the farther apart they get, and suddenly we can see the water below them. The more we send our random thoughts downstream, the more we become aware of our own soul below them. Letting our thoughts just pass by isn't all that easy. We humans have a hard time not doing things. There is a solution. When a baby is suddenly interested in playing with the electric socket in the wall, how do we usually get them away from it? We give them something else to occupy their attention: a toy, a rattle, a stuffed bunny. We give them something safe to take their mind off of something dangerous. What about my random distracting thoughts? How do I keep my mind off that? I give myself something else that points me back toward God rather than away: the sacred word.
STEP THREE. Choose a sacred word or phrase. It might be as easy as silently whispering the word "Jesus" to ourselves whenever we are aware that we are thinking about something else. Turn each distracting thought away by silently whispering your sacred word: "Jesus. Jesus. Jesus." Let it go. We give ourselves a break. We do not have to be so attached to every little thought that wanders into our awareness. The less attached we are to our random thoughts, the more space there is between them. The more space there is between them, the quieter we become. Then we are aware of the deep silence and stillness within. This stillness within is the "peace that surpasses all understanding." This does take some time and some practice. For some of us, just sitting still for a half hour doing nothing will take some discipline. It could take a week or two until you begin to feel more comfortable with it. For others, just getting comfortable sitting in complete silence will take time but it is worth the time. We may feel funny doing nothing. But remember, it's not nothing.
STEP FOUR. Sit long and quiet enough to really hear your own thoughts. Then keep sitting quiet and still as you learn to let your thoughts and worries go, turning them away with your sacred word and tuning in to God within. Contemplative Prayer is about resting in God's Presence revealed through silence. It takes practice, but is a crucial skill to center our lives in God.
We are clearing away the noise and distractions that either drown out the Voice of God or keep us from paying attention. Ready to hear God more clearly? We will take that up tomorrow.
If you want to know more about contemplative prayer, Father Keating, and Contemplative Outreach, visit their website by following this link: https://www.contemplativeoutreach.org