There is nothing like a crisis to get one’s mind and emotions churning and grinding incessantly and thus robbing us of peace, of presence of mind and the wisdom we need to determine what step to take next.
It is precisely in a time of crisis one needs to be able to rise above the turbulent thought and emotional stream, to press in to God and the peace of Christ, so as to be able to wisely handle important decisions. Many a time when we see a friend facing a health or family crisis, we come armed with advice which we give sometimes unsolicited. But when someone’s mind is overly busy and we’re not the only person giving advice, that individual has no ability to wisely evaluate it. A well-meaning suggestion could even be experienced as a kick in the solar plexus. The best thing I think we can do is come alongside someone in this state, pray for them, and help them rise above the thought stream and emotional turmoil by being importunate in prayer until they receive His Peace. Then, He shows the way, providing a gentle light on the path ahead that illuminates the next step.
I’m thinking of this because I have started reading Cardinal Robert Sarah’s The Power of Silence. I cannot praise this book or this Cardinal highly enough.
74. Our world no longer hears God because it is constantly speaking at a devastating speed and volume, in order to say nothing. Modern civilization does not know how to be quiet. It holds forth in an unending monologue. Post modern society rejects the past and looks at the present as a cheap consumer object; it pictures the future in terms of an almost obsessive progress. It’s dream, which has become a sad reality, will have been to lock silence away in a damp, dark, dungeon. . . .
From morning to evening, from evening to morning, silence no longer has any place at all; the noise tries to prevent God himself from speaking. In this hell of noise, man disintegrates and is lost; he is broken up into countless worries, fantasies, and fears. In order to get out of these depressing tunnels, he desperately awaits noise so that it will bring him a few consolations.
Yet the answer to this disintegration, and “countless worries, fantasies, and fears,” is silence, a mystical encounter with the Silence of God, the quieting of the spirit so we can hear his still, small voice.
Where does one even begin with this? I know how I developed a discipline of contemplative prayer that has been immensely fruitful, but I learned it from a spiritual leader I had to later renounce because while the spiritual exercise benefited me greatly, this man’s teachings had some falsehoods that kept me from the fullness of Christian orthodoxy. Had I been doing this exercise with the benefit of a good Catholic spiritual director, and a combination of the so-called Positive Way of assenting to doctrinal truth with the so-called mystical Negative Way, of silent prayer where one rises above one’s thoughts, imagination, in a silent, naked longing for God as He is in Himself, I think my spiritual progress would have been much, much straightforward. Now, thankfully, I have both the ability to enter into silence and waiting and listening after years of practice and I have the teachings of the Catholic Church to guide me, to say nothing of the graces of the sacraments of the Eucharist and Confession. I find an attentive praying of the Rosary can also bring one into a state of silence before God.
And what in our English Catholic/ Anglican patrimony can help us? I remember during my college years coming across The Cloud of Unknowing and finding myself deeply drawn to it. I was at a stage of experiencing active derision to any institutionalized religion, but the writings of mystics got past that disdain and quickened the part of me that remained alive from my infant baptism. The anonymous writer of this book advised putting a “cloud of unknowing” over our knowledge of God as we prayed, even over our positive conceptions of Him.
The silent prayer technique I had learned later, that helped me rise above my turbulent thought stream, wild imagination that was often tinged with anxiety, proved to be less urgently necessary after I did the Steps to Freedom, a series of prayers devised by Neil Anderson and his Freedom in Christ Ministries to renounce such things as false teachings, occult involvement, lack of forgiveness, sexual sin and so on. I did these prayers at a conference and the leader of the conference leader kept telling us that after doing these prayers: “Your mind will be a quiet place between you and God.”
I had had immense mental chatter, much of it anxiety-related, that I had to work at rising above by having a daily spiritual practice of silence, and being in the present moment waiting on God. After doing the Steps to Freedom prayers, the problem of mental chatter ceased. And yes, my mind did become a quiet place between me and God without my having to be so disciplined about rising above the chatter.
Except, however, for the days when I face a crisis of some kind, or someone does something cruel and I’m back in the thought-stream and emotional turmoil. But then I know what is the most important thing to do—to pray, persist, persevere until I quiet my soul to experience the Silence of God. Sometimes it might involve confessing and renouncing, if I have fallen prey to judgement or anger or fear. Sometimes it involves requesting prayerful assistance. And sometimes, it means sitting alone in a quiet room observing the emotional turmoil and thought-stream while remaining anchored in the present moment—not judging what I see, not trying to change what I see, until the turmoil becomes smaller and smaller and the silent part of me that is observing becomes larger and larger and soon the emotional angst becomes like a tempest in a teapot that I can observe but not get hauled into its roiling.
What else is there in the English Catholic contemplative tradition that can help us experience the Silence of God and the immense grace and fruitfulness of entering into it?