SLD Blog

Our Restless Hearts

At most of our Spiritual Life Development retreats, we will use liturgies that we’ve created as a means to guide our prayer time. These liturgies serve several purposes. They expose many of our retreat attendees to a beautiful practice to which they’ve had little or no exposure. They give us opportunities to pray together with words that are not our own, so we get out of our own heads and willingly submit to other voices. The scripture readings are lectionary-based, so we encounter passages of scripture that have been read and meditated on that very day by many Christians around the world, and our voices join with theirs. And we experience silence together. Silence is this holy space between and around our words where Presence fills us more than words ever could.

I noticed something a bit peculiar at one of these recent retreats, especially peculiar during those times of silence.

As the spoken words faded into the silence, I heard someone rustling their paper. The silence was only a few seconds long, but the rustling of the paper lasted the entire time and didn’t stop until we began reading the next Psalm together. As the Psalm concluded, I heard him clear his throat and slide his hands on his legs. We’d begin reading the next prayer and as that ended, I heard him sigh, breathing heavily but not rhythmically. Sounds like this persisted from this person throughout the entire liturgy. Several hours later, as we entered into Vespers prayer together, I noticed the same thing.

He was clearly very uncomfortable with the silence. In my experience teaching and sharing this practice with people, this is a common response. We get used to the white noise of life and busy-ness itself becomes the source of the static. We’re more comfortable when we’re aware of all the things happening around us than we are taking a few steps away from them, or taking a few moments to separate from them. The experience of silence becomes its own disruption for many of us. The lack of noise is the loudest and most distracting thing.

Stepping away from the frenzy and into silence, which is meant to be experienced as spiritual freedom, is instead felt as a divorce, a tragic and invasive tearing from what we’ve become accustomed to and from where we derive our value.

I found some time during our evening snack to speak with this gentleman. I asked him how he felt about the liturgies. Like many, he appreciated a new way of experiencing worship together and he found the time to be deeply spiritual. I asked him how he felt about the silence and he immediately looked me in the eye and then away. He admitted that he wasn’t a big fan.

As we spoke, I asked questions, hoping he would explore the struggle with silence. I didn’t want to guide the experience, or the resistance, I simply wanted to hear his reactions as he sorted out the feelings and urges that came up.

We spent the next hour in an amazing conversation.

Stepping away from the frenzy and into silence, which is meant to be experienced as spiritual freedom, is instead felt as a divorce, a tragic and invasive tearing from what we’ve become accustomed to and from where we derive our value.

For those who are not used to silence and solitude, it can be a very abrasive experience.

During times of prayer in the retreat, the moments of silence can become nearly unbearable. The silence outside is a stark contrast to all the things flying through your head. The difference between the two can be almost painful. Crinkling a paper, clearing your throat, any noise one can make that breaks the silence brings some relief.

It is almost torture to experience a five-minute period of intentional silence where the goal is simply to be present with God. It’s almost impossible to not turn it into a time of talking in our heads. All we want to do is fill the silence with our laundry list of our own prayer concerns, or the grocery list of people we know who need prayer, or even the actual laundry or grocery list.

But as a practice, silence and solitude are something completely different. We practice an intentional spiritual experience based on our availability to sit with God in His presence without agenda or the need to control the dialogue. It isn’t a “listening exercise,” though silence and solitude can lead to hearing things from God that we may never have heard in our busy-ness. It isn’t a strategic exercise, though sometimes we will find a next step, or a bigger picture of God’s purpose in our lives through the experience. It is a discipline of stillness, of presence and of waiting. Three things we struggle mightily with.

As our conversation continued, he began to cry a tear at a time. He opened up to me about his fears of being in the silence with God. He opened up to me about the pressures of his ministry. He opened up to me about his own sense of fragility in a leadership position. He opened up to himself about the deepest part of sitting in that silence. I will never forget the next few moments. Just before choking up and looking away, out a window, for several minutes, he said:

“What if God sees me?”

 

Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
   See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalm 139:23-24)

 

“You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”                                                                                                                                   Augustine

 

Written by Chris Stoker of the Spiritual Life Development Department

 

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