Julie Chalk, a member of the working group that guides the ministry of Spirituality for the Wisdom Years, shares this from a cousin in Seattle. The writer is Cherry Haisten, Lay Pastor and Contemplative Ministries Coordinator for The Center at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Seattle. saintandrewsseattle.org
The Gift of Unexpected Silence
The silence on a weekday morning in Seattle is eerie. It’s like the days after a blizzard when traffic comes to a standstill. Except, of course, you don’t hear the gleeful voices of children on unscheduled holiday building snowmen and throwing snowballs. Except, of course, it’s not a snow day. At my house, behind the busy shopping stretch of 15th Avenue East, the sounds of delivery trucks and the clanks of drivers unloading flats of goods are far less frequent than usual. Fewer planes seem to be flying their usual route over our roof. Photos on national news show empty streets downtown. The silence is eerie. We’re not used to it. Yet, as my teacher, Fr. Thomas Keating, reminded us, “Silence is God’s first language.” Maybe this unusual, seemingly unnatural, silence gives us the opportunity to re-acquaint ourselves with God’s profound language, in fact, to get back in touch with God, who often gets crowded out of our lives by the noise of business and activity. When we practice centering prayer or another wordless form, it’s a rare benefit if that prayer time is supported by silence.
Noise fills our families, our workplaces, our shopping places, and even our worship places. Our culture is generally uncomfortable with silence. It’s so unusual that even in the church it rarely crosses people’s minds that anyone might be sitting in a chapel or some relatively quiet corner in silent prayer. Gone are the days when children were conditioned to drop their voices to a reverent hush when entering the sacred space of the sanctuary. Enforcing a rule of silence around us when we practice silent prayer is hardly conceivable. We shouldn’t even try.
In our prayer time, and maybe sometimes in our daily lives, we are “listening below the noise,” in the title words of Anne D. LeClaire’s book on the transformative power of silence. We are developing interior silence, letting go of the noise inside our own heads, in order to be able to hear God with the ears of our hearts. Let those who have ears hear, as Jesus said. I think he meant the ears of the heart. Hearing God may necessitate some subtle listening through the ears of the heart, some inner attuning to the delicate and gentle communications of the Spirit within us. Silence provides the language lab for that kind of listening.
When I thought we would hold our traditional quiet morning at St. Mark’s last Saturday, I wrote that having that brief three-and-a-half hours for silence and prayer was a luxury. Well, the coronavirus has given us at least one gift to be thankful for—the luxury of less frantic activity, less noise, and more time to spend practicing God’s first language. As Lynn Ungar suggests in her poem “Pandemic,” let’s consider this a sabbath, “the most sacred of times.” How cosmically appropriate that it should happen during Lent when we are called to “rend our hearts and not our garments and return to our God, for the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” (Joel 2:13)
Let’s embrace this unexpected Lenten opportunity to rend our hearts, enter more deeply into the silence, and return to God, knowing that the Infinite Divine holds and upholds us always without ceasing, through the noise and the silence, and through every unexpected turn in our lives. God is holding us even now, inviting us to let go of all anxiety and lie back to rest in those infinitely loving arms. With prayers for healing and health and blessings for this holy Lent………