Invitation Into Quiet - Nader Sahyouni
Many years ago when I used to work in the world of engineering management, I attended a workshop by the woman who was in charge of the first Mars rover mission. She had written a book called “Managing Martians” and was speaking to us about different ways to create breakthroughs in creativity. She asked us to break into groups of 4 or 5 and I remember sitting with a bunch of scientists doing some exercise or other and I came to the conclusion that one way I could propose to jump start creativity was to have a prolonged period of silence, like an entire weekend, to kind of reboot my thinking. The reaction from the scientists: they didn’t even think they could manage 10 minutes of silence in their day.
I wonder if that feels true to anyone here? Silence, in theory, seems like something that would be good and helpful to us, but, in our lives, we don’t even think we could manage 10 minutes of it.
Vince and Kyle asked me to speak to you today about building silence into our lives, and because this isn’t something that comes naturally to us, I thought I would first talk about some simple ways to build silence into our lives and why we might want to do that. Since we were talking about Martians a minute ago, I want to take you back to Mars with me for a minute. It takes anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes for a radio signal to travel from earth to Mars one way depending on the positions of the earth and Mars, and it takes the same for the return signal. So a round trip signal might take 10 to 40 minutes. One of my seminary professors wrote a book in which he defined prayer as talking to God, God talking back, and the space in between.
This analogy then gets to 2 of the types of silence I want to talk about today. When I talk to God, I am not being silent, and that is OK and we know Jesus certainly taught us to pray with words and we should do so. But then there is a listening part when we listen to what God is saying to us, and that requires silence. The other type of silence is when we are not expecting God to speak back, and we are just silent in his presence, and I think that is what my professor would say is the space in between.
Last time I spoke here this was a significant part of what I was teaching about so I won’t be going into that again today, but I do want to offer something from my own experience that might be helpful. I don’t do this very well and I feel like I need to more often. When I pray about a topic, I stop for a while and listen, and give it some time, I try to be aware of my perception of God during that time. And I find that those times of prayer slow me down and deepen my communication with God. I may hear something back and I may not, but it is fruitful regardless, because the moment of quiet helps me to sense a bit of God’s presence. Doing this repeatedly makes for a much richer connection with God for me.
On the other hand, we have the silence of just being with God, not trying to hear if he is saying something First we have to differentiate between silence as a mental practice compared with silence as a spiritual practice. If we just say that all silence is spiritual, then that means introverts have inherently more prayerful lives. I think Kyle and the other extroverts here would take exception to that. That doesn’t mean of course that the mental practice of silence is not without benefit, there is lots of evidence that various types of silent meditations and ways to focus our mind is helpful to our mental health. On the other hand though, silence as a spiritual practice involves one crucial difference in that it involves cultivating an awareness of God’s presence and his nearness to us. This is where we pay attention to God, whether we are listening or not.
One way to do that is simply to take a walk in nature. With the weather around here, that’s not always possible, but walking in nature is a sure fire way for me to reconnect with God when I’m feeling far from him or when it’s hard for me to be aware of his presence or his reality. I learned this many years ago from my Spiritual Director. I told him I was having periods of dryness where prayer felt dull and lifeless. He suggested that I take a walk in nature when I feel like that, and guess what, he was right, it always helps me.
Throughout the ages monasteries and retreat centers were built in places where the beauty of nature is inspiring and breathtaking. There is a reason for that. We see something of God in nature, in the abundance of life that he created, the abundance of variety, the breathtaking beauty, these are all things that help us to connect with God. If you can build a daily or a weekly routine of walking with God in nature, I doubt you will be disappointed. If you want to go to the graduate level suggestion, you can try to build in a rhythm of a day or a weekend of silence at a retreat center once or twice a year.
Another way to practice silence is to simply sit in silence without music or activity. You can try it for 5 minutes or 20 minutes or 40 minutes, whatever you think you can handle. I had a friend who struggled a great deal with what she was taught about personal spiritual practices. She had been taught a rigid approach to spending time with God, and that it needed to include a certain kind of prayer, a certain kind of Scripture reading and also scripture memorization. She had done those faithfully, but she got to a point where doing it was no longer life giving and felt too much like a duty. She ended up quitting completely until someone suggested she just spend 20 minutes in silence with God. This was a major turning point for her. She didn’t have to do anything. She didn’t feel pressured to read or pray a certain way, and that silence was very helpful for her. She felt tremendous freedom and new life in her relationship with God.
There’s a similar story I read once of an Orthodox bishop giving advice to a woman in his congregation…. “Orthodox bishop Anthony Bloom tells a delightful story in his classic book, Beginning to Pray. An old lady came to him with a concern when he was a young priest. She had been praying the prescribed prayers of the church for many years, but as she put it, ‘Never have I perceived God’s presence at all.’ And so Bloom gave her some advice. She was to sit in her armchair after breakfast; she was to look around her room and see what was there; she was to light a little lamp before her icon of Christ; and then she was to take up her knitting and knit before the face of God for fifteen minutes.‘But,’ Bloom commanded, ‘I forbid you to say one word of prayer. You just knit and try to enjoy the peace of your room.’ She obeyed the priest’s instructions and was surprised to discover the smallest noises, and then a rich silence. And then, ‘all of a sudden,’ the lady reported, ‘I perceived that the silence was a presence. At the heart of the silence there was He who is all stillness.’ God’s presence can be found anywhere if we only permit ourselves to find it.” (Wilhoit and Howard 1127-1134, 2012)
The third and last kind of silence I want to talk about is a type of Christian meditation called Centering Prayer. It’s not for everyone, and not everyone is ready for it, so please don’t feel any pressure to try this, just pay attention to whether you are feeling invited to it as I talk about it. It’s probably best if you’ve tried out your prayer muscles a bit with other types of prayer first
In this prayer practice, we choose a sacred word, something like Jesus, or Mercy, or Hope, and we repeat that word until our thoughts are centered on God, then we stop saying it and rest in God. So it’s not like a Mantra which you keep repeating, here the Sacred word is only used to bring our attention back to God. Of course new thoughts and distractions will come in, and when that happens we can use the sacred word again to bring back our attention to God. This is not a time of listening to God, just paying attention to his presence. The results reported by people are very positive, not only in their relationship with God, but in their mental health as well. I have found for me that I resisted God calling me to this kind of prayer tooth and nail.
I enjoy praying conversationally a lot, and when I felt God nudging me to pray in this way my feeling was “hey God why do you want to mess with my prayer life? You and I have a good thing going here, just leave it alone, why fix what’s not broken?” but God kept inviting me to it, to the point where sometimes I would find continuing to pray conversationally was just not working any more. It was as if I’d be sitting in an Orchestra hall where talking is just inappropriate. But I’d say God, I’m anxious about all these other things, when can I pray about them? I found that it was really best to set aside a different time for connecting with God about what I wanted to talk to him about.
Some things that I prayed about in a routine way, like praying for my wife and kids, I would do that while doing something routine like when I was driving. However driving is not a good time for conversational prayer for me, so I would set aside time for that, just to talk to God about the things that were on my heart for the day, that’s the part that I enjoy the most, but because God was inviting me to a new form of prayer, I would try to balance that with the time of Centering Prayer God was calling me into.
Even after doing Centering Prayer for a while though, I still had many questions as to whether I had heard God right about this. I still had my doubts that this did not feel like the type of prayer I had been used to in most of my adult life. My feelings of ambiguity about it lasted until 3 years ago. I was going through a period of uncertainty about my job at the time. I had very strong indications that I was going to get laid off in the next round of layoffs from the company I had worked at for 22 years. I don’t know about you, but when I’m anxious I can’t hear God very well, so I asked a friend of mine who is especially gifted in listening prayer, he hears God much more clearly than most people I know. I said Garrett would you pray for me about this, I can’t hear anything… A couple of days later he called me and said he sensed God saying something that doesn’t make any sense, he said he felt God is saying that “he speaks in the silence”, what Garrett didn’t know was that I had just read those exact words the day before, that “God speaks in the silence”. I was taking a class on Christian mysticism and that was part of the reading. Needless to say I was convinced after that.
Now just because I like to talk a lot with God, doesn’t mean I haven’t seen some benefits of Centering Prayer. One of the benefits that I’ve experienced has been an increasing awareness of God’s love in deeper places in my heart than I had before. Other people report this as well. There was this one couple I heard about who had lost a child, and they just could not get over their anger at God for not intervening and saving their child. They tried many different things but they were just stuck, and they couldn’t get over it. It wasn’t until they tried Centering Prayer that they were able to find healing and experience God’s love again.
One of my core wounds with God is that I have a hard time trusting him. I spent years trying to get my theology right about God so that I could trust him better. I knew that God was incredibly creative and answered prayers in amazing ways at times and sometimes not at all. This created actually more questions for me. How could I trust God when he seemed so powerful and yet so unreliable? Believe it or not, I would actually go around asking people, what does it mean for you to trust God? It wasn’t until I read something that Henri Nouwen wrote about how trusting God only grows as we experience his love for us. This really resonated with me. It is in the experience of being loved by God that I would find greater peace, not in intellectual understanding.
The interesting thing is that psychologists tell us we that children learn to be confident in the world by knowing that they have a secure base in their parent. They venture out and quickly return and check that the parent is there when they are stressed. I think that is similar to what happens in our silence with God, in that we develop a greater sense of his presence and his love that increases our confidence in him and we can venture out more into the life that he has for us on a daily basis and feel like we can trust him a bit more each time.
Let me finish with the question of how you can tell whether this is a good time for you to try out silence in your spiritual life. The first piece of data is how you are reacting to this talk. Are you excited about the idea? If so, it’s probably a good bet that it’s worth trying.
If you’re feeling resistance, it may not be for you. But hold on, don’t give up just yet, stay with me. The next question is what is that resistance telling you? If it feels like a resistance like a complete lack of attraction, then it’s probably not the right time to pursue this. On the other hand if it feels like it’s getting you riled up or maybe even triggered, it would be worth asking God what that’s all about and having a conversation with him about it. Sometimes we resist silence because it puts us in touch with things we need to look at but we are avoiding because it’s uncomfortable for some reason.
Sometimes there are reasons so it’s good to just have the conversation with God about it. Regardless of whether it’s intriguing you, making you upset, or having no impact at all, I want to encourage you to ask the question to God of what he wants next for you in your relationship with him? Is there something life giving he wants to invite you to?
One thing I emphasize always is that spiritual practices are not all about discipline and gritting our teeth and doing the push ups, they are all about grace and invitation and relationship. If we sense that God is asking us to add some time of silence, then pray for the grace to do so. If it’s five minutes a day, pray for the grace to do five minutes, if it’s a walk in nature once a week, pray for the grace to do that, and if you’re having a hard time building it in, you might want to talk to someone about what might be getting in the way. In fact one thing you might do is ask someone to pray for you today, and Vince will give some direction on how to do that here in a minute. But first I’d like to pray for us…..