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“Be still…”  (KJV, NIV, NLT, ESV)

“Cease striving…”  (NASB)

“Calm down…”  (CEV)

“Step out of the traffic…”  (The Message)

“… and know that I am God”

(Psalms 46:10)

Tuesday, September 18

I am learning that silence is not “soundlessness.” 

On Tuesday, I sat in the garden in the cool morning air.  The ground, trees, and shrubs were heavy with moisture from the rain that fell during the night.  I heard a car or truck traveling down the nearby highway, a sound that was greatly amplified by the tires on the wet surface of the road.  My first reaction was one of being slightly annoyed by what I considered to be an intrusion upon my solitude.  But, my own silence was beginning to foster a new level of attentiveness that allowed me to reinterpret this “annoyance.”  I began to ponder some questions?  How many people were in the car?  Where were they going?  To work?  Taking children to school?  Traveling to the funeral of a family member or friend?  Visiting a relative in the hospital?  A sound that I was tempted to write off as an annoyance actually represented lives… souls… people created in the image of God… people loved by God… people for whom Jesus Christ died.

My “morning lesson” was multiplied exponentially a short time later when I heard a passenger jet passing overhead, hidden from sight far above the gray clouds.  This plane was likely filled with dozens of people, each with a story, each with inherent value as a precious creation of God.

In the quietness of silence, we clearly hear things that otherwise would be indistinguishable within the normal background noise of our lives.  In the slowness of solitude, we see things that otherwise would pass unnoticed beyond the range of our fleeting glances and frenetic movements.  As I walked the garden path that morning, I heard the beautiful melodies of songbirds, along with the intermittent cacophony of passing crows.  I saw tiny wildflowers, some of them brilliant blue in color, nestled among the wet grass.  I began to recite the words of Jesus, “Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not worth much more than they?  And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?  And why are you worried about clothing?  Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you?  You of little faith!”

On Tuesday afternoon, the sun came out, and I sat in the garden and read for a couple of hours.  As I read, I noticed a tiny black bug crawling across my open Bible.  It was about 1/3 to 1/4 the size of an ant.  The brightness of page’s white space in the sunlight contrasted sharply with the dark bug, allowing me to see it very clearly with my reading glasses.  I have no idea what it was.  Soon afterward, I noticed an even smaller red bug, barely visible on the leg of my jeans.  As I was straining to identify any distinguishing features, it flew away on wings too small for me to even see.  I am certain that I had never seen this type of bug before – one of God’s marvelous creatures, probably among hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of species of tiny, living things.  My lack of any knowledge about it or prior experience with it did not negate its existence or reality.  What was its “function” in the scheme of things?  I haven’t the slightest idea, other than the fact that it is undoubtedly both a feeder and food – a miniscule, vital link in the chain of life – part of the order, balance, and wonder of God’s creation.

Then, it was hummingbirds that kept distracting me from my reading; or was my reading the distraction from what God intended to be the main attraction?  The divine engineering of hummingbirds is incredible!  I had as many as four in view at one time as they took turns at the feeder.  One of them would drink the red nectar and then fly away to the same branch on a massive fir about 30 feet away, doing this repeatedly and landing at almost the same exact spot on the tree.  Was this a routine?  A rut?  Was there a reason?  Again, I didn’t know.

(A brief aside about the hummingbird feeder for the benefit of my relatives in Tennessee and Indiana who know their horses and mules…  The feeder was suspended from a decorative piece of iron, crooked at the top, and crowned with the image of a horse.  It took me a long time, but I finally noticed that, despite being right in the heart of Thoroughbred country, it was a Tennessee Walking Horse that adorned the feeder frame.  Just a bit of “irony” (pun intended) and further evidence that all were welcome at this Kentucky Abbey!)

Occasionally, a hummingbird would fly close to the feeder while another was imbibing and would summarily be chased away.  I wasn’t sure if this was playfulness or micro-agression at work, but the two would dip, dive, and bank in an aerial ballet and then rocket out of sight.  Though normally silent in flight (at least to my ears), they emitted a distinct hum (thus their name, I suppose) as they shifted into warp drive on these high-speed chases.  Ornithologists and bird enthusiasts can correct me on this if I’m mistaken, but on two occasions I heard what amounted to a “chirpy” sound from them during their pas de deux.  It was brief, but definitely audible.

Speaking of chirping, a mockingbird was providing the backing track to the entire hummingbird show.  The songs of the other birds earlier in the day had been mere warm-up acts in this outdoor music festival.  The mockingbird, sitting in a nearby cedar, was the headliner and the showstopper!  It went through every tune in its repertoire, never wavering or waning in strength and clarity of voice.

All nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.

The birds their carols raise; the morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise.”

This is my Father’s world!

Guesthouse Pond at Abbey of Gethsemani

Monday, September 17

“Checked into my room at 11:30 – about to go to the dining room on the ground floor.  Silence is observed in the dining rooms, hallways, stairwells, porches, gardens, etc.  Silence is serious here!  I am anxious to experience it, along with solitude, over the next four days.  Very grateful for this opportunity.  I’m serious about drawing closer to God, developing a more real and consistent devotional life, and leading my family as a more dedicated, more selfless disciple of Jesus Christ.”

Those were the initial thoughts that I jotted down as I was getting settled into my room in the retreat house on Monday morning.  I had been anticipating this retreat for four months, and I was very excited about spending the week in a context of silence.  But, to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t exactly sure how silence “worked” in practical terms.  I had never done this before.  I’ve spent most of life talking, a lot.  It’s pretty much an occupational hazard for me; it’s what I do.  I’m expected to have something to say, always, and to do so with “relentless regularity,” as Robert Oglesby once described the week-to-week demands of ministry.

Was this going to be complete silence?  Mostly silence?  Strongly suggested silence or seriously enforced silence?  I got my answer as I carried my bag from the parking lot down the sidewalk toward the guest house, church, and monastic quarters at the Abbey.  There was a sign posted on both sides of the walkway that read, “Church Entrance – Silence Beyond This Point.”  Well, that was helpful!  Questions answered!

Actually, I did speak in quite pleasant conversation with the first person I encountered, one of the resident monks who was sitting behind the desk in the lobby of the retreat house.  He welcomed me, found my name on the reservation list, gave me my room key, handed me a brochure with useful information, and wished me a wonderful and blessed retreat.  It was the last conversation that I would have until Friday afternoon, with the exception of my conversations with God.

“Silence is spoken here.”  Those words adorn small plaques on every table in the main dining room of the retreat house.  It is a gentle reminder of the lingua franca at the Abbey.  It took me until early Tuesday afternoon to reach the point where I was not having to consciously restrain myself from speaking to people as I passed them in hallways, on the stairs, and on the garden paths.  After that, it seemed quite natural, comfortable, and most suited to the surroundings.  Silence didn’t necessitate rudeness or ignoring others; quite the contrary.  I began to be impressed with how much kindness and courtesy could be communicated without speaking a word: a pleasant smile, a hesitation that allowed someone else to pass through a doorway ahead of you, handing someone a coffee mug while waiting in the service line, etc.

Mealtime took on a significantly different dynamic in a context of silence.  It negated an entire category of common speech, i.e, “table talk” or dinner conversation,  that is so integral to our usual fellowship with family and friends.  Guests in the retreat house at the Abbey quietly made their way through the cafeteria-style, self-service line in the kitchen, then found a seat in the main dining room where a taped lecture or readings from Thomas Merton would often be playing softly on the speaker system.  Another dining room (sans tapes) was available for those who wanted a completely quiet atmosphere.  And a third, smaller dining room was provided at the end of a long hallway for those who wanted to share in conversation while they ate.  I never saw anyone utilize that room all week.

Eating in silence allowed me to thoughtfully consider God’s gracious provisions for our physical needs and His faithfulness in giving us our daily bread.  Rather than merely tweeting a brief prayer of thanks (140 characters or less) before my meal, I could pray throughout.  During one evening meal, I decided that I would thank the Father for something different between each and every bite of food.  I succeeded in expressing gratitude for an extremely long list of blessings in my life.

Silence served as a bond and a unifying force among the 30 or so retreatants at the Abbey that week.  Silence fostered anonymity and functioned as a great equalizer, negating the multitude of things that tend to define us, label us, and divide us.  Small talk and “mixers” in other social settings give us the opportunity to “suss out” other people (as Aussies would say), providing us with the data that we need to figure out what to do with them, where to pigeonhole them, how to stereotype them, and assess (almost instantaneously) whether or not they are worthy of our investment of time and interest.

Did the person sitting next to me in the dining room graduate from high school or have a Ph.D.?  Were they a minimum wage earner or a CEO with a six or seven-figure salary?  Single, married, divorced, widowed?  Republican or Democrat?  Catholic or Protestant?  National League or American League?  SEC or Big 12?  No one knew.  No one needed to know.  Everyone was there on the same terms, their own!

This “relational silence” among the retreatants also caused me (actually it convicted me and shamed me!) to realize how easily we make “snap assessments” of others, not just based on what they say, but even by the mere sound of their voice.  Their accent alone signals us whether to assume that they are a snob or to question their intelligence.  Are they articulate?  Do they have a speech impediment?  Is their voice gravelly or shrill?  I repented, asked God for forgiveness, and resolved to stop being so shallow, so superficial, and so judgmental of others based on such non-substantive criteria.

More on the subject of silence and stillness will follow.

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March 2023