Just as from the heavens / the rain and snow come down / And do not return there / till they have watered the earth, / making it fertile and fruitful, / Giving seed to the one who sows / and bread to the one who eats, / So shall my word be / that goes forth from my mouth; / It shall not return to me void, / but shall do my will, / achieving the end for which I sent it.Isaiah 55:10-11
“Let your Kingdom come; let your will come to pass, as in heaven so also upon the earth.”Matthew 6:10
One of the most meaningful and beautiful of scriptural images for me is the one we read in Isaiah today. As the rain and snow come down from heaven and give life to the earth, so shall God’s word. The word of God creates what it speaks. God speaks his word so that his will may be done on earth as in heaven. By God’s choice that word is designed to reach its fruition on earth, thus achieving the end for which God sends it, in and through us.
This profound yet simple image teaches us our place in this creative speech and act of God. We are called to be the instrument of the word, the voice of God in the world. The power is the power of God’s word, yet that power is effective through our hearing and acting on that word.
When we pray as Jesus taught us, we ask of God to “let your will come to pass, as in heaven so also upon the earth.” The passive voice tells us something very important about our relationship to God’s powerful and creative word. The power is in the word, what we are to do is not to be an obstacle to that word and that power on its way through us. That is, what we must do, first and most of all, is attend to and hear the word as it “comes down” to us.
In his Sayings of Light and Love #100, St. John of the Cross teaches: “The Father spoke one Word, which was his Son, and this Word he speaks always in eternal silence, and in silence must it be heard by the soul.” According to St. John, the prerequisite for hearing and so heeding the world and allowing it to be active through us is true silence of soul. As we ask the grace to grow in prayer this lent, let us reflect on our practice of silence and on how we may be able to deepen it so that we may touch the “eternal silence” in which God speaks.
One way of thinking about how we practice growing into a silence in our lives that opens to the eternal silence of God is to take stock of the quality of our presence through our whole field of formation: our presence to our interior lives, our presence to others, and our presence to all of creation.
This very morning I had a flash of insight into what makes presence to myself and my immediate experience so difficult. As I look towards the day today, I am experiencing more than my usual level of anxiety. As I moved toward sitting and being with my own inner experience, I realized how difficult my feelings of anxiety make this and how strong are the impulses in me toward distraction and the imaginary. Instead of being in the present, my mind kept leaping to thoughts of later in the day, when the tensions of the day will be behind me. I thought about what I might watch and my thoughts repeated the narrative of the television series I’d been watching. I thought about the upcoming baseball season and listening leisurely to some games on the radio. I thought about the impending end of the term of this congregational leadership group of which I am a part, and on and on. And even when I brought my mind to the work ahead, I found myself repeating experiences of the past and reliving the feelings of resentment and anger that have pervaded my consciousness for some weeks. Being still and opening to the silence seemed like the most distant of possibilities. I wanted only to either evade or to work on the current “problem,” feeling as if there could be no silence and no rest until it was solved or eliminated.
What is happening for us at such moments is that our deformative memories and anticipations have become an obstacle to being in the present. So we are trapped in our heads instead of being present in the world. Even as I now write, my gaze turns to the beautiful blue sky of the early morning, and I open up to experiencing myself as situated in the world. As I allow the larger world to re-enter my consciousness, I feel my own body, something that I do not when my mind is racing. Instead of magnifying my own emotional experience as if it was the entire story of creation, I can slowly move from my fears of the future and resentments of the past more into the present. I am put in my proper place in the world, and from there my mind slows and my body relaxes. In this present moment, whatever has been and will come, I can simply breath and be present to the creative Word which is always being uttered in the now.
The obstacle to a full and silent presence to others is similar to that which operates in our relation to ourselves. I stand before the other, known and unknown, with my own stock of images and feelings. My past experience of the person her or himself, or of others whom I identify or conflate with the person before me, creates a story for me of who this person is, and of how I am to react to him or her. Every facial expression of the other, every word he or she utters, I contextualize in that narrative — a story that stands between myself and a silent and receptive presence to the other. Feelings are in large part memories. And so, my encounter with another, in the loud and busy narrative I am telling myself about him or her, is, in large part, a repetition of the past rather than a full and open experience of the present. When we are present to the mystery of the other, we are thrown into silence. As Moses in the presence of the burning bush and Samuel in response to the Lord’s repeated speaking of his name, we wait in silence, in the face of Mystery, until it speaks its word to us. The clarity of our reception of the Word may well be in relation to the depth of our own silence. The degree to which our preconceived narrative is silenced will be the level of our hearing and understanding. Every word spoken, at the very least, points to the silence from which it emanates and so must be received and interpreted in the depths of our own silence. As with presence to and hearing of ourselves, the silence we are called to in presence to others is the silence of the heart of the present moment. Of course our words and actions occur within a larger context of our whole lives and only make sense within that context. Yet, those words of another are also weighted with a depth of meaning that transcends that context, that reveals in some limited ways the eternal spirit in which the unique life of the other participates. Life and creation speak through those words.
We all know the familiar philosophical principle: “All that is received is received in the manner of the receiver.” So, to hear the silence from which the word of the other springs, we, the receivers, must be sharing that silence. Most of us have experienced in our lives a listener who seemed to us to be fully present to us, not preoccupied with his or her own life but who, at least in a moment, was present to us out of a deep inner silence. The best listeners I have known are those whose way of living and being is greatly informed by silence, within and without.
Finally, what does it mean to be present to the wider world of creation in silence. At least in part in involves letting creation speak to us rather than imposing our meaning on it. As with other human persons, it means practicing our true and proper relationship to the world. Recently I had a conversation with a friend which began with his lamenting that in a place he and his wife had visited he was appalled to see how on one side of the street that had long been a Navajo reservation there was no development, while on the other side which was not part of the reservation homes and businesses had been constructed. His experience, as I told him, triggered in me a very different interpretation from his. I thought of how differently European-Americans and American Indians are present and related to creation. In the former case, we see ourselves as using creation for our benefit; creation and the land are ours to dominate. In the latter case, we humans are part of creation. We are to live and to act in proper relationship to the land and all of creation, which is a gift to us, not a possession.
So, to be present to the world in the mode of true silence is to allow the creative Word of God that is present and active in creation to speak to us. Silence before that Word requires of us to still our projects and to learn from creation who we are and how we fit in the larger plan of the Creator. For many of us, the deepest sense of silence we experience is when we are walking alone in a deep wood, or along the seashore, or on a mountain. When we are put in our place and experience ourselves in our smallness relative to the vastness of creation, we naturally fall into a deep silence. All of our concerns, preoccupations, and self-obsessions fall away as we walk along a quiet and deserted beach, or among the trees of a forest that may be hundreds of years old, or on a mountain top that affords us a view of countless miles.
The Word that created the universe is the same Word that speaks us into being. When we are situated in our proper place, we fall into silence before the awesomeness of the Mystery. As Hebrews 4:12 reminds us, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” All the noise we make in our own heads, in thoughts and feelings, are our judgments on ourselves, others, and the world. Jesus tells us not to judge so that we may become silent enough to hear the judgment of God’s word. That “judgment,” quite simply, is God’s relating to us the truth of creation, of the others, of ourselves. For us to know that truth, however, we must first be silent. For, God speaks God’s word “always in eternal silence, and in silence must it be heard by the soul.”
His disciples recognized that the power they saw in him did not come from within Jesus, but from a source outside him. They saw that he connected to a deep source through prayer, through constantly lifting to God what was on his mind and in his heart. They saw it and they wanted that depth-connection for themselves. So they asked Jesus to teach them how to pray.Ronald Rolheiser, Prayer: Our Deepest Longing, p. 23
Ultimately, we too want Jesus’s depth and graciousness in our own lives. Like Jesus’s disciples, we also know we can attain this only through prayer, through accessing a power that lies inside the deepest deep of our souls and beyond our souls. We know that the route to that depth lies in journeying inward, in silence, through both the pain and the quiet, the chaos and the peace, that come to us when we still ourselves to pray.