(Mark 10:46-52) How difficult it is for modern humans to be still! When was the last time you were really still? I don’t mean physically still but still at the centre of your being, deep down at ease with nothingness; a little while ago, a long time ago or never?
Riding the train into Melbourne I watched as people sat still, most not talking, most seemingly at rest. Yet this was not the case. Most had the white cords of distraction in their ears, were fiddling with the mobile communication device in their hands and sitting looking down in what appeared to be a permanent hunch, rarely were they in conversation, looking out the window or just sitting without doing anything.
When I got to Synod, Cheryl commented on the number of people whose heads were down, a soft blue glow lighting their faces as they stared at their mobile communication devices, reading messages, posting to their Facebook page or, heaven forbid, playing games. The gentleman across the aisle from me sent and received emails all the way through the Eucharist service, automatically responding on cue to the responses in the service!
I have written a small book on the experience of leading the students from Lindisfarne on 3-day silent retreats. I spoke to the publisher to see what they thought. The publishers representative said she had read it and it was excellent, but it won’t sell. I asked why? She said the idea of taking middle school students on 3-day retreats is to challenging and frightens people (adults, teachers, clergy).
It is sad that that seems to be so.
Brett Esaki in his article, ‘Desperately Seeking Silence” suggests that silence is the youth cultures unmet need. And I would add, society at larges unmet need. He would say that those who wear the white cords in their ears do so to blanket out the noise of the world and to be alone with themselves. The music that they hear becomes a wall protecting them from the sounds of a world which is challenging, frightening and just a little bit foreign. My discussions with teenagers confirms this as the practice of young people in particular, all people in general.
Esaki suggests that ‘silence is the space and time to listen, where to listen is to learn, to allow one’s consciousness to transform, or to absorb.’ Silence responds to sound, it is not the absence of sound. Sound creates the environment in which silence can grow and become. Being still in the midst of noise gives permission for us to unshackle ourselves from the noise and note the learning, the message, the insight or reflections present in us and in the world.
“The day Jesus came to Jericho Bartimaeus was sitting and waiting. All the longing in his heart cried out, and though the disciples couldn’t see past his blind eyes and his beggar’s cup, Jesus heard what was in his heart, stood still and responded.” (With apologies to Nancy Rockwell)
Jesus encounters Bartimeaus in the midst of noise. If we close our eyes and imagine the scene on the road we may imagine Jesus is moving along in the company of some or all of his disciples. They are walking along a busy road on the outskirts of town, a place where you would typically encounter beggars who were seeking support. Not much good sitting on a back road. No traffic. There would have been any number of beggars on the road into town – the blind, the crippled, lepers, the sick and more.
Jesus would have attracted those who were seeking miracles, others watching out for anything sensational and newsworthy, and others wanting to catch him out. It would have been place full of the hustle and bustle of celebrity and the chaos of ordinary folk seeking extraordinary treatment. In the midst of this we encounter the power of stillness.
Bartimeaus is sitting still on the side of the road. His blindness makes it almost impossible for him to move without help. To move anywhere requires another to make it possible. After being escorted to his place by the side of the road, he sits. He hears the noise and attempts to sift out the message, the story the sounds tell him about what is happening on the road. Only then does he call out and not before. He calls out of his stillness and silence. It is this place of repose that informs and allows him to encounter with what is going on. He is not distracted by the noise, but is able to discern what is occurring in the noise and make contact with Jesus.
Jesus is surrounded by the noise. It is everywhere, people clamouring for his attention and response. But Jesus is so practised in silence and stillness, he takes this with him into every encounter. The Gospels are replete with stories of Jesus retreating into silence, stillness and isolation. He encourages his disciples again and again to follow his example. Silence and stillness are the central spiritual practices of Jesus, and because they are, they define his life in engagement with others.
Here he discerns the authentic voice amongst many and ‘stands still’. He does not move toward action, he doesn’t rush to see how he can solve this persons problem, he stands still. In the stillness he calls to the authentic voice who responds and makes his way to Jesus. Jesus avoids the tendency to rush in where angels fear to tread. He stands still, waits, affirms, calls and is responded to. Bartimeaus has so honed his awareness through the many years of sitting and listen that he too can hear the authentic response. They meet and Bartimeaus finds his need met.
This afternoon we have Shush Church and on November 7th we have a silent retreat. I would suppose that these can be seen as challenging activities for those who have not had previous experience of such and wonder what is expected of me if I come along and take part?
Silence and stillness are to be practiced with out expectation. Mostly nothing happens. Sometimes something happens. And then nothing happens. It is a place of training where we simply sit with ourselves, being aware of what is or is not happening within us without trying to make something happen with in us. It is about coming into peace with ourselves, recognising the noise that is there and sitting with it so as to hear the authentic voice and response.
Silence and stillness is scary because we are in fact letting go of distractions and excuses and becoming open to what is really happening within us. Distractions like loneliness, anger, busyness, gossip, others and their opinions, children and grandchildren disappear as we begin to be comfortable to be with ourselves.
It is and does take practice before it becomes our practice. Jesus knew the power of the Psalmist’s plea, “Be still and know I am God” and the Zen koan of “Be still, be very, very still, and above all else do not wobble”
I would encourage each of you to attend this afternoon or to join us at the next silent retreat. They are good places to start. Amen.