After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave. A voice said to him, “Elijah, why are you here?”
1 Kings 19: 12-13
It is a beautiful morning here in greater Baltimore. As I awoke, there was a beautiful cool breeze coming in and the sound of singing birds outside my window. The week has been quite a hectic one, with a trip to Rome and a series of meetings coming up tomorrow and final preparations required today. So, my anticipation of the day was that it would feel frantic from beginning to end. Yet, as I awoke, and made breakfast and looked at today’s scriptural readings, my experience was one of openness, relaxation, and calm.
I suspect that a part of the reason for this is that, despite the very busy schedules of us both, a friend and I had made it a point to spend a couple of hours together late yesterday. We often lament how far too infrequent are our times together, and yet when they occur they are inevitably true and significant encounters. Within a very brief time together, it seems as if we are fully “caught up” with each other and what has been most significant for us since our last meeting. This is not planned out or scheduled but a spontaneous opening of ourselves to each other out of a deep desire to be connected, a real love of each other.
There is so much of daily life in our culture that militates against this kind of presence and communion. And yet, with each increasing year of age, I realize ever more that being related in this way is what is truly important. When I am hyper-functioning, I live as if my work is primary, rather than in the service of something greater. In today’s familiar reading from 1 Kings, Elijah hears the voice of the Lord not in the earthquake or the fire but in a “tiny whispering sound.” And as he quiets down to listen more intently and receptively, he hears the question: “Elijah, why are you here?” Often, I think, we, both as individuals and as a culture, move at the pace we do and overvalue our own work so much because we do not want to hear the omnipresent question: “Why are you here?”
Many years ago, someone gave us an exercise which required us to make a pie chart of our twenty-four hour day. The experience is quite illuminating and it reflects concretely what values move our lives. Beyond the concrete expression of how one spends the hours of his or her day lies the deeper question of the consciousness that permeates those hours. How much of my time is spent in doing whole-heartedly and single-mindedly what I am doing. This is true for the two hours I spent yesterday with my friend. It was time out of time. For all the busyness that bracketed those hours, for that time we were mindful of nothing else but of being with each other. I suspect that I awoke in an unexpected but most welcome mode this morning because yesterday’s experience of being with and for each other had changed my sense of time. The day before me and my life felt spacious and not constrained, free and not burdened, gifted and not demanding. “The ten thousand things” of which the Tao speaks were still all there, but I was in a different relationship to them. Instead of anxiety-provoking demands, they were invitations to my responsiveness.
It is possible to live in our contemporary world almost totally without silence. In fact, silence can become something to be feared and avoided for us. Our avoidance of silence is perhaps related to the very reason that we resist deeper presence to another or others. Is it, perhaps, human anxiety that leads those who live together in family or community to develop habits of avoidance from each other? Are we somehow constantly avoiding the question “Why are you here?” that lurks always beneath the surface and which open and receptive presence to another, ourselves, the universe, and God always evokes?
God is so absent or so distorted in our experience in part, at least, because of our avoidance, and so lack, of silence. Silence is the foundation of self-awareness but also of real presence and communication. It was because of yesterday’s shared presence and totally open speaking that I was drawn more deeply into silence, a silence that continues this next day. It is in this silence that I remain present to the question of why am I here, and to the experience of God’s answer, as mediated in part by the love of others.
Without silence we feel there is no space in life. Without a sense of spaciousness, we are driven by time as chronos. There is never enough of it to do all that we think we have to do. There is a feeling that life is one continual deadline after another, all leading to our final deadline. In a silence that is presence and communion, however, we live rather in a sense of time that is kairos, that is what Jesus in John’s gospel calls “eternal life.” Here our consciousness, at every slice of our temporal pie chart, is one of relationship. This moment, this task, this rest, this activity, this encounter is a moment like those two hours yesterday. It is first relational and then functional. It is a moment of what Jan van Ruusbroec would describe as “rest.” It is suffused, as an encounter with a beloved friend, with love.
In truth, however, our consciousness is for the most part much more dispersed and divided than this. So agitated and anxious do we tend to be that we come to believe that life has no time for solitude and silence, for relationship and deep communion. We work as if working were the end of life. As we do this, the personal becomes an interruption. As this habit deepens, we lose a consistent experience of joy in life.
Never before in history have human beings had more access to information about political and civic life; yet seldom have most people been more disengaged from civic responsibility. To think of much of our media and of our own experience of sharing information is to be struck by the lack of joy that surrounds it. When our daily involvements and work cease to have the possibility of joy in them, it is likely that they become more consuming and frantic even as we become more disengaged from and irresponsible towards them.
I awoke this morning feeling calm, spaciousness, peace, and joy. The reason is that having experienced such closeness to another, I now felt close and connected to my life and the world. In that closeness and connection, there is joy in being and there is balance in my functioning. I realize myself as embodied and so limited. Unlike my runaway ego which is always demanding more whether I am capable of it or not, my body and my spirit know that nothing is asked of me by God and the world that I am unable to do. What is asked of me is my presence as I am, not as I may think I have to be. This is what real relationship and communion with another and the Other teaches us.
So, because I am stilled, and silenced, and received by another, I recognize the answer to the question, “Why are you here?”. I am here to be present, with all I am, and to offer that presence as my gift to the immediate other, to my work, to the world. I can’t be present in accord with that call if I am only half there. It’s not merely my exertion strivings that are being asked of me. It is not merely what I can do. It is who I am, as I am called to be. The meaning of this in each situation is not something that I can conceptually grasp in advance. This is what it means to live in faith.
Sometimes at night, I put off the lights before I am settled in for the night. When I do so, I walk very carefully and gingerly, feeling my way and not exceeding the feedback of my body and senses. I move at a pace appropriate to being in the dark. So often, in my daily ordinary life, I move, I choose, I speak, I act as if I know where I am going. The pace of the spirit and the pace of the ego are very different. Adrian van Kaam says that “the body has a spirituality that the mind does not know.” As I walk those few paces to bed in the dark, I understand something of this. I don’t attempt to hurry and to exceed by limits. There is something very comforting about this experience. I can hurry, but then I’m likely to stub my foot or to bump into something. When I move slowly, and silently, I feel a lot of spaciousness in each step. I sense a calm coming over me. This is due to the fact that unlike my usual pace, I am related to my body and my whole self. To live in faith, step by step out of a light that is so bright it seems dark to us, requires such relationship.
Yesterday I discovered that what I usually think I don’t have time for might be the most important thing to do, or as Jesus says to Martha, “the one thing that is necessary.” It is only by being in ourselves, as we paradoxically learn to do in relationship, that we know in the very fiber of our being, why we are here.
Then there are three other things which are higher and which give a person a firm foundation and render that person capable of enjoying and experiencing God whenever he or she wishes. The first of these is to rest in God whom one enjoys. This takes place when the lover is overcome and possessed by his Beloved, so that each is entirely the other’s, both in possession and in rest. There follows the second thing, which is called falling asleep in God. This occurs when the spirit sinks away from itself without knowing how or where this takes place. There then follows the third and last thing which can be expressed in words. It takes place when the spirit sees a darkness which it cannot enter by means of the power of reason. In this state a person feels that she has died and lost her way and that she has become one with God, without difference. When she feels herself to be one with God, then God himself is her peace, her enjoyment, and her rest. This is an entirely fathomless abyss, in which a person must die to herself in a state of blessedness and come back to life through the virtues in whatever way love and its touch require.
Jan van Ruusbroec, The Sparkling Stone, II,G