These are the opening words of a prose poem titled “Desiderata” (“Desired Things”) that was popular in the 1960s and ‘70s. Although it was written during the economic boom of the Roaring Twenties and revived in the turbulent ‘60s, the sentiment seems appropriate to our own time. Perhaps that is because there is so little silence in our world. Most of us are aware of missing silence and stillness in our noisy lives, and recently scientists have begun to identify the long-term consequences of the absence of silence. Aside from obvious physical damage to our hearing, the scarcity of peace and quiet represents a threat to our psychological health and our relationships with others. Noise is a stressor, evoking physiological stress responses that can lead to cardiovascular disease and other stress-related ailments. Hearing does not “shut off” when we sleep. Thus noise can interrupt sleep, triggering emotional and social problems associated with sleep deprivation such as impairment of concentration and learning, and increased incidence of aggressive and hostile behavior. Noise is not only annoying; it can also be hazardous to our health.
Silence is essential to our spiritual well-being. We need silence to help us clear away the mental clutter of earthly concerns so that we are able to focus on our relationship with God and his world. Recall that the prophet Elijah at a time of desperate need (1 Kings 19) went to meet God at Mount Horeb, but did not find him in wind so strong that it split mountains, nor in earthquake, nor in fire. After the fire came “a sound of sheer silence” (verse 12). That was when the Lord spoke to Elijah, to reassure and direct him. Searching for God in the sound and fury of nature’s power was futile. Listening in the silence led Elijah to God.
Like Elijah, we need to find ways to put aside strong winds, earthquakes, and fires, as well as the myriad other distractions of contemporary life in order to make space for silence. We need to set aside time and find protected places where the quiet won’t be swallowed up in noise and activity. It isn’t easy, and it gets ever more difficult as the pace of life accelerates in seasons of high activity – such as prior to Christmas. Making room for silence can be a considerable challenge, but be assured that the effort is worthwhile. Finding a time and location for your own practice of silence will provide immediate benefits.
The peace of silence comes to a faithful heart and an expectant mind, emptied of anxieties and ready to perceive the voice of God. In silence, we can detect the signs of God in our world and perceive how he wants us to contribute to that work. In silence, we can hear the word of God and learn to understand and internalize it. In silence we can anticipate the promised things to come, and be strengthened by hope.
The familiar French hymn, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” captures the awe of encountering the holy in the envelope of silence, and was the inspiration for the set of reflections that follows.
LET ALL MORTAL FLESH KEEP SILENCE
Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in his hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.
King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth he stood,
Lord of lords in human vesture,
in the Body and the Blood
he will give to all the faithful
his own self for heavenly food.
Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of Light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the powers of hell may vanish
as the darkness clears away.
At his feet the six-winged seraph;
cherubim with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the Presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry,
Alleluia, Lord Most High!”
— Words: Liturgy of Saint James, 5th century; trans.
Gerald Moultrie, 1864; Hymn Tune: Picardy – French carol
Keep Silence and Watch
Advent is a season of anticipation. In our secular world today, the focus of anticipation is the gifts that will be given and received and the festivities in which people will participate. Jesus, however, spoke of anticipation in terms of signs in nature, distress among the nations, and people paralyzed by fear and foreboding: no jolly holidays! He was speaking of the end times, the apocalypse, when this world would pass away and God’s eternal kingdom would come to earth. The end times were also the time of judgment, which explains the fear: One did not know whether he would be among the favored ones of God or if he would be cast out into the darkness where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth. It would either be wonderful or terrible. Nothing could evoke greater dread than the thought of being on the wrong side at the end times.
But Jesus’ message about the end times had a different tone. He told the people to stand and raise their heads high, rather than cowering in fear when the end was in sight, because it would signal the time of their redemption rather than their condemnation. The hymn describes Christ our God descending to earth, the Light of Light that vanquishes the darkness and powers of hell. The end times mean final victory over all evil and death.
It seems that hardly a week goes by when the world is not reeling in the aftermath of brutal, bloody attacks on civilians in a variety of venues and all around the globe. Hundreds of people are killed and injured. Each episode is followed by news of other attacks averted by intelligence and the astute actions of security personnel. The climate of shock and horror is pervasive, because every person alive is a potential victim in a war of terror. Has God forgotten his creation? Has he abandoned us to the forces of darkness?
It seems that now more than ever we need to return and rely on the central truth of our faith, that Jesus Christ has conquered sin and death by his earthly life, death and resurrection. He has accomplished our redemption from sin and reconciliation with God. There is no uncertainty: It is finished. God’s power still reigns and he is still working out his purpose whether or not we know what the purpose is, or can see him at work. Does the conviction of these things make the threats less frightening? Probably not in the short term. But it does broaden the perspective, and reminds us that the outcome of this struggle with evil is not in doubt. The side of good wins in the end. Spending time in quiet and stillness is the best way to put ourselves in mind of that reassuring truth. In silence we can remember why Jesus came to earth so long ago, and why he will return. In silence we can recall that, like the Jews of Jesus’ day, we don’t know exactly when that return will be. So we must watch.
Questions for Personal Reflection
What time(s) will I set aside for silence, and in what location(s)?
When I have spent time in silence in the past, what have the experiences been like?
Keep Silence and Listen
John the Baptist was nothing if not an unusual human being. As described in the Gospels of Mat-thew and Mark, he had a distinctive persona: wearing camel-hair homespun, a leather belt around his waist, living in the wilderness and subsisting on a diet of locusts and wild honey (Matthew 3:4; Mark 1:6). He would definitely stand out in a crowd, even today. In the time of Jesus his attire and ascetic lifestyle would have marked him as a prophet. Indeed, there are many parallels drawn in the Scriptures between John, son of Zechariah, and the Old Testament prophet Elijah, whose expected return to earth would signal the imminent coming of the Messiah.
John knew how to listen to God. Because he listened and heard God, he had a crystal clear under-standing of who he was and what he was sent to do. That God had a special mission for him was apparent even before he was conceived. The story is told in the second chapter of Luke: Zechariah the priest was offering incense in the temple when the angel Gabriel appeared to him and announced that he and his barren wife, Elizabeth, would have a son, despite their advanced age. The boy was to be named John and dedicated to the Lord in the life of a Nazirite, one consecrated for sacred service. (Nazirites followed an order of strict discipline including abstaining from all intoxicants, and never cutting their hair.) When John grew to manhood he fulfilled the angel’s pronounce-ment regarding his mission: He became the herald of the Messiah, preparing the way for the Lord and announcing a dramatic new phase in God’s redeeming work in the world.
In his preaching John delivered a novel and radically countercultural message to a largely uneducated and unsophisticated population of fishermen and farmers. He was wildly popular and drew large crowds wherever he went. His message was straightforward: Repent and be baptized. This new emphasis on repentance meant that people could no longer rely on their identity as descendants of Abraham to save them from God’s judgment. They also could not depend on the temple rituals conducted by priests on their behalf to stay in God’s favor. They had to take personal, individual action, in owning up to their own sin and turning away from it to take a different path. Baptism by immersion in the Jordan River was the ritual through which they could wash sinful desires out of their lives. That meant that redemption was available even to men not descended from Abraham, to women, and to notorious sinners. These were not only ideas that contradicted the teachings of the Jewish establishment; they were also ideas that demanded radical personal change. Yet crowds including tax collectors and prostitutes thronged to the prophet, to make a fresh start in life and be prepared for judgment when the Messiah came.
John lived in the wilderness throughout his ministry. We can’t know for sure, but we can infer from the lives of other ascetics and hermits that the wilderness was where John went to hear God. Having a clear sense of God’s direction and being filled with the power of God’s Spirit were essential to fulfilling John’s ordained role as the Messiah’s herald. His ascetic lifestyle left him unburdened by the demands and obli-gations of occupation, family, or temple, to focus his mind and energies completely on listening to God.
Imagine for a moment that you could be trans-ported to a wilderness place, alone and uninterrupted by worldly duties, freed from all the worries and woes in your life. Would that be the ultimate retreat? And wouldn’t it be even better if you could return there on a regular, frequent basis? In a 21st century post-industrial society we may only be able to create an approximation of wilderness, but even that has value. It’s critical to be able to withdraw from life in the social sphere so we can listen to God. We may not be prophets like John the Baptist or Elijah, but we have been ordained in our baptism to share the ministry of delivering the message of God’s redemption to a broken world. Like John we are sent to tell all people the good news: that they don’t need to belong to any select group, and that they can be released from the burden and guilt of sin by repentance and commitment to a new existence. Like John we need ways to rest, rejuvenate and renew ourselves in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Questions for Personal Reflection
What barriers to creating time and space for silence do I anticipate?
What steps can I take to eliminate or work around those barriers?
FURTHER THOUGHTS ON WILDERNESS PLACE
- In geological terms a desert is defined as an arid region that can support only sparse vegetation, if any at all. In symbolic terms, it is a place lacking in the profusion and variety in ordinary places. When we look for a desert location and time conducive to silence and listening, we are looking for a desert in terms of noise and distraction. Deserts do not have to be remote, but they do need to be apart from the usual pattern of life.
- Going to a retreat center for an organized or guided program is an option for some, but distance and the effort of making arrangements for such experiences can become barriers to access to the desert. The important thing about the place that functions as your wilderness is that you get there, not that the setting be ideal.
- Individuals vary in their capacity to shut out the commotion of everyday life. For some it is relatively easy to spend time alone in a designated room of the house with the door shut; for others the sounds on the other side of the door trigger distracting thoughts. The wilderness place that works best for you is one that is consistent with your own personality and preferences.
- Site options you might consider are quasi-public spaces where a quiet environment is maintained and where individuals can find a private corner. For example, the public library; a church or chapel that is open for individual prayer; a public park; a meditation room in a hospital or nursing facility; or a study room at a college.
- Individuals also differ in their need to move versus sitting still. For some, physical movement helps control the mind’s tendency to stray. Repetitive motion such as walking or pedaling a bicycle, or activity that requires some exertion but not much thought such as mowing the lawn or weeding the garden, may be helpful to prevent restlessness and mind-wandering.
- Once in your wilderness space your only task is to focus on God and listen for his voice. You might be thinking, “That’s a description of prayer,” and you are correct: This is a form of prayer. But for some, praying is more about telling or asking God than listening to what he would communicate. Spending silent time listening may require practice.
Keep Silence and Wait
These words of reassurance from the prophet Zephaniah date to the seventh century before Christ and the collapse of the Assyrian Empire which had dominated the Near East for over 100 years. The prophet pro-claims God’s promises to restore his people to a peaceful life, released from the oppression of the Assyrian rulers. God says that not only will he restore the people to their land, but they will also have their reputation and their fortune restore “before [their] eyes.” In short, everything will be all right again.
Knowing that something is going to happen is very different from knowing when it will happen. As we affirm every time we repeat one of the creeds of the Church, we believe that Christ will come back to earth at the time of the last judgment, and will establish the kingdom of God on earth. When he will come is a different matter. Scripture gives no clear indication of when this will come about. Jesus was asked by his disciples when the Son of Man would come, and he replied “… about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Matthew 24:36; Mark 13:32) Not even the Son knows: shouldn’t that be enough to suspend our need to know? We tend to get stuck in trying to find out the “when,” like impatient children who ask repeatedly how many days till Santa comes, or when we will reach a destination. We need to say to ourselves, as to impatient children, “Just WAIT!”
In practical terms, waiting is all we can do, be-cause we can’t alter the time when we don’t have any idea when it is. The hymn makes a useful suggestion for the time we are waiting: “Ponder nothing earthly minded.” Don’t get distracted or tempted by the mundane. The heavenly may seem far off in the future but it is really in the here and now. Christ our God came to earth to live with us for a time as a human being. When he was no longer present in the form of a man, he gave us his Spirit and this Spirit is present now. Earth and heaven aren’t really so far apart after all.
One fundamental reason not to allow our focus to shift to the earthly is that the earthly does not offer us hope. When we allow our minds to dwell on the pain and suffering in this world, we can become depressed and demoralized. Despite its beauty and natural wonders, this world is not a happy place. Focusing on the earthly is seeing only part of the picture, and results in a distorted perspective. If we had to rely on the ca-pabilities of humans alone to restore wholeness in the world, giving up in despair would be reasonable. But we know that God has acted and is acting today. We can trust that he will keep his promises to save the lame and gather the outcast, and wait in joyful hope for the day when he will bring us all home.
It takes discipline and deliberate intent to avoid pondering the earthly minded and to ponder the heavenly instead. Bombarded as we are with hundreds of negative messages each day from all sides, we need to resolve to counter the doom with God’s message of hope. One way to do that is to make sure we interact with God’s word on a daily basis. You can read a daily devotional reading either from a book or online. You can participate in a service of the Daily Office (Morning or Evening Prayer or Compline) in private, at a public service in a church, or online. You can listen to inspirational messages in prose or music in a broadcast or from a recording.
Be assured that Christ is God-come-to-earth/God-with-us, and that he comes to bring blessing. This is the foundation of our hope. This is why we trust and wait.
Questions for Personal Reflection
On a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 represents “unable to tolerate waiting for anything under any circumstance” and 10 represents “able to wait for an unlimited length of time without anxiety,” how would I quantify my capacity for patient waiting?
What are some ways that I can maintain my focus on the heavenly and avoid getting distracted by the earthly?
Keep Silence and Prepare
The season of Advent is about preparation. In previous reflections we have been thinking about preparing for Jesus’ coming again, but we also need to prepare for Jesus’ coming now. When he took on human existence Jesus came into the world in the body of an infant; now he comes into the world in his Body, the Church. The Church carries Jesus into the world to be present with those who are poor, sick, outcast, and afraid, just as Jesus spent his earthly ministry with the needy of that day. The Church speaks for Jesus against injustice and oppression just he spoke out against abuse and exploitation in his time. The Church today proclaims the good news of God’s love, mercy and redemption just as Jesus did to a land oppressed by the Roman Empire and hungry for hope. God cares, and God acts, then and now and always.
The message that the Church has to tell is desperately needed by the world into which it is sent. How should we prepare to deliver this message? The Collect speaks of purifying our conscience, just as John the Baptist preached: Acknowledge the sin in your life. Commit yourself to getting rid of the sin, guilt and pain. Turn your life toward the path that leads to God. Rely on the strength of God’s Spirit.
Purification from sin, also known as sanctification (literally, “making holy”) is a process. It happens over time through the daily intervention of the Holy Spirit. Silence is important in order for sanctification to take place. By spending time in silence we invite the Spirit to live in us and transform us. We also make room for reflection on how the Spirit is at work in us and in our world. When we fall into the patterns of frantic activity that characterize our contemporary society, with every waking minute scheduled and little time to contemplate what we do and why we do it, we forego the insight, wisdom and peace that reflection can bring. Silence creates space in which we can catch our breath (literally and figuratively) and consider our relationship with God and his Spirit. How well are we listening to learn about God’s plans for us and what he would have us do? How closely do our thoughts and actions conform to the work God has given us to do in his creation? How patiently are we waiting for God to reveal his will and bring about it in his good time rather than ours? These are the essential questions to think about, but they can’t be addressed adequately in the space of fleeting moments, squeezed in between activities and appointments. It takes time and space and silence to prepare a mansion fit for our King.
Questions for Personal Reflection
How can I make space for the Spirit to do the work of sanctification in me?
For what work in God’s kingdom am I being prepared?
It’s hard to imagine a joy greater or more wide-spread than the joy at the birth of a new baby. It seems to put everyone in mind of possibilities … dreams for the future … a new, unique personality to add to the family. Each little bundle of joy is really a symbol of hope. The birth of the Christ Child was no doubt greeted with joy by the two people present as well. But this birth of this baby boy was extraordinary because he was the promised Savior of the world, the Wonderful Counselor, the Prince of Peace. Could Mary and Joseph have appreciated on the night of his birth all that it meant, not only to them, their family, and their community, but to the entire universe? If I had to guess I would say they probably had little sense of the cosmic import of the birth of their little boy. Sometimes it’s good that we don’t know what lies ahead of us and our loved ones in life, even though we may think we want to know more than we do. If Mary had known exactly how the last week of Jesus’ life would unfold, with betrayal, mocking, shame and pain, her joy at the holy birth would surely have been diminished.
The birth of Jesus went unnoticed by the world. There was no media coverage; no “royal watchers” waiting outside the palace or hospital for official word of the baby’s arrival; no elaborate communications plan to notify the most important people immediately upon completion of the delivery. The infant Jesus entered our world in a dimly lit, quiet barn. ave you ever been in a livestock barn at night, especially a chilly night? It’s a rather soothing, comforting place to be. Warmth emanates from the breath and bodies of the animals. They doze, occasionally shifting position and sometimes emitting low-pitched noises. It’s a calm environment, much like the atmosphere we try to emu-late in modern birthing centers (minus the animals and the hay). A good setting, if humble, for the birth of baby. Humility was appropriate, because Jesus was born into a humble family and ministered to humble people throughout his earthly life. In many ways he entered the world as he would live in the world.
Finding space for silence during the season of Christmas allows us to humbly approach the manger in our own way. The only way we can begin to under-stand the magnitude of God’s gift to us in his Son is to appreciate the depth of Jesus’ humility. The King of Kings and Lord of Lords had no place but a stable to spend his first days on earth. The second person of the Triune God, present at creation and in command of all natural forces, came among us as one of us. In silence with the infant Savior we catch glimmers of the magnitude of God’s gift to humankind. Thanks be to God!
Questions for Personal Reflection
What hopes do I have for the world and for humankind?
How will silence help me prepare to convey the miracle of God’s gift to the world?