“Our holy fathers hearkened to the Lord’s words, ‘Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, unchastity, thefts, perjuries, blasphemies; these are the things that defile a man’ (Matt. 15:19-20); and they also hearkened to Him when He enjoins us to cleanse the inside of the cup so that the outside may also be clean (cf. Matt. 23:26). Hence they abandoned all other forms of spiritual labor and concentrated wholly on this one task of guarding the heart, convinced that through this practice they would also possess every other virtue, whereas without it no virtue could be firmly established. Some of the fathers have called this practice stillness of the heart, others attentiveness, others the guarding of the heart, others watchfulness and rebuttal, and others again the investigation of thoughts and the guarding of the intellect. But all of them alike worked the earth of their own heart, and in this way they were fed on the divine manna (cf. Exod. 16:15).” ~Symeon the New Theologian
1 God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
3 though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
5 God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
6 Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
8 Come and see what the Lord has done,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease
to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
10 He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.”
11 The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
I look east at the sun rising over the horizon, a moment of peace that signals the beginning of what I know to be a busy day. I gather my thoughts, drink some water, and try to be in the moment. My kids are awake, I heard them earlier, but they’re not in the living room where I’m sitting, so it’s quiet still. A moment of hope.
As I sit seeing the glow of the sun that’s just to the left of my sliding door (hard to stare directly at the rising sun after all), I see a young raven land in a branch in the tall pine tree across the street, a tree that has lately been the home to a family of acorn woodpeckers. I know it’s young because of its distinct call, its bouncy, yet unsure way. He seems to be eating something, then as he finishes he walks along the branch and bounces to a higher branch, then yet higher. The woodpeckers see him, but aren’t as bold as they get with other birds. They flurry around as he goes higher and higher, finally out of my view.
A flicker lands on the rail just outside my window, pokes around and then flies to the roof. I turn right and see a grey squirrel just outside my other window, walking along a rail, then she hops to a nearby tree and climbs up.
As I write this, things calm down again.
The sun has continued to rise, and while it seemed for a few minutes that the forest menagerie were all beginning their day, now I don’t see anything except a small moth reflecting the morning light. It’s chilly outside, not even the slightest breeze moving the leaves or needles.
I woke up this morning thinking about stillness. The ancient Christian monastics wrote about the contrast between stillness and frenzy, not unlike how a lot of more recent writers write about the contrast between holiness and sin.
I’ll admit this is another way those monastics gave me categories that are more helpful in my journey. Sin is an important theme, but it has been so stylized and packaged and holiness itself has been abused, redefined, and taken out of the context of the living experience of Jesus of Nazareth, made religious rather than freeing.
Stillness resonates with me as reflecting that deep experience of trust, hope, peace, and love, steering me into the fruit of the Spirit that Paul highlights in Galatians 5. Frenzy is its opposite, often expressing (in action or temptation) sin, but more often pulling us into the kind of socially acceptable sorts of distortions: impatience, frustration, irritation, worry. The contrast of frenzy vs stillness is all through the Bible, where faithful disciples could sing with joy in prison, where Jesus himself napped in the midst of a storm that caused the disciples to panic.
I’ve come to realize that just like musicians begin practice by tuning, getting their instrument into right alignment with the notes and the other instruments, so too we need to tune ourselves with the Spirit. This isn’t about works, doing more, using frenzy for religious ends. This is about finding that resonance with the Spirit so that we become centered in Christ.
There are so many different stories out there, so many different demands on our lives, so many people advising us, demanding from us, expecting us to live up to their standards or goals or to feed into their frenzy. So many people telling us who we just have to be, what we have to do to succeed, where we need to go, what we need to eat, how we need to perform. They define the good for us, and compel us deeper into the chaos.
Where is life today? Where is true and substantive freedom? In that path of the Holy Spirit that leads us to love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. These aren’t, as many may think, a retreat from the world, a kind of naïve disengagement from the real problems around us. They are what it means to be in tune with the only hope and power for substantive transformation of ourselves and the world.
Stillness is inner shalom, an experience of living into the story of God’s lordship, a story that began at creation and invites women and men into ever retuning to live as we truly were made to be, in community with Father, Son, Spirit and others around us.
It’s almost impossible to describe, I think, as we’re so used to words that they’ve lost their emotional power. Yet, the experience of this, once tasted, is hard to forget, that moment of deep peace, of relaxed tension, of being active in and for this world but not co-opted.
In the midst of so many demands on my life this season, experiencing the mental and physical impact of stress, I yearn for relaxed shoulders, eased thoughts, songs and prayers stirring from within, to dance amidst the trees and to laugh with the wind and birdsongs, to seek out friends and family to share my time with in joy, not obligation.
The journey toward this stillness is at the root of the spiritual disciplines, to align ourselves in prayer, study, rest, maybe fasting, definitely exercising, and so many others that are a buffet for us to discover. The goal isn’t the tasks, the goal is to more and more find that stillness in the presence of the Spirit, who is the giver of both life and calling.
Without the stillness, we get lost in the flood of other stories that want us as minor characters. With the stillness, we become whole in the work of the Spirit, able to be and to do according to God’s good will, God’s good timing, God’s good strength, God’s good delight.
Stillness isn’t always easily found, especially when we can’t get away from the storms of life and the expectations of a busy world. But it is there. It is available. Jesus isn’t far away and waiting for us to do everything right. Jesus is with us, here, in the storms too. Let us listen, let us learn his voice, the story he is telling within us and to the whole of the cosmos, together in this intricate, complex, ever more beautiful experience of life.
Let us this week and this quarter tune to this calling and in tuning to this find this beauty and transformation resonating in our lives and in our contexts, genuine good news in present and eternal ways, the story of true and resurrecting life.
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