Silence Discloses a Hidden Presence.
I participate in an inter-religious dialogue group. One of the members, an engineer by occupation, says he’s an atheist. He is, he says, because he sees no rational or empirical scientific evidence for the existence of a god.
He has pushed me a lot for why I believe in God. I appreciate this pushback because it has helped me think deeply about why I do indeed believe God is. What I’ve discovered is that if you push me hard enough, I have to admit that it is not rational arguments. I find rational arguments convincing only because I already believe.
Nor is it emotional feelings or religious and mystical experiences. I have had some, but again I believe they are experiences of the divine because I already believe in the divine. Nor have miraculous or serendipitous events proved conclusive. Again I have had some events in my life where circumstances converged in a surprising way that I did not plan. But they do no prove God is for me or for others. They may be just pure chance.
No, none of these reasons are ultimately persuasive either to unbelievers or to me. What is convincing for me? In a strange way, it is the practice of silence. Let me explain what I mean.
I grew up in a deeply religious family, a family whose theological convictions ran in a fundamentalist groove. Like many young people after college, I too came into deep questioning of these convictions, largely because they made me feel so miserable.
My spiritual journey during my 20s, 30s, and early 40s was tumultuous. It amazes me that I did not just chuck Christianity out and settle into a totally unbelieving and uncaring lifestyle like so many of my generation. I continued instead to battle within myself.
The Turning Point in My Life
When I reached my mid-40s, I had reached my limit. I remember one night sitting on the sofa in my living room and trying to pray. Finally in exasperation, I said, “God, I’ve had it. I’ve tried everything I can to break through to you, but nothing has worked. From now on, if and when I sit down to pray, I’m just going to sit here in silence. If you are real, you are going to have to reach out to me and make your presence real.”
Well, no sky opened. No heavenly voice spoke. No vision of light flooded my soul, not then nor in the coming months. If I prayed at all, I did indeed sit in silence saying nothing or doing nothing.
Then over the coming months and years, something strange did happen. A sense of the reality of a divine presence in the world and in my own life did begin to settle into my life.
It was not a particularly rational thought. Nor was it a deeply emotional feeling. It was not any kind of bodily sensation. And it certainly was not a mystical experience. It was just there. I cannot describe it except that it was simply there, nothing more. And yet that presence felt real, very real.
Coming to Know through Letting Go
Shortly after that fateful night, I also stumbled onto a book that introduced me to the practice of centering prayer, which is a prayer of silence. It is a form of prayer taught by the Trappist spiritual master Thomas Keating. In centering prayer, you do not say anything, do anything, or even try to feel anything. You simply be, be with God and yourself in silence.
I cannot explain the power of this kind of prayer. You give up any effort to do anything. You just simply try to be during the time you practice it. Yet, I have come to be convinced there is an amazing power to this just being with the divine presence in the world and in our lives. You begin to have a sense of real communion with God but it cannot be expressed in words or images. In this respect silence discloses the divine presence in a way that nothing else can, at least for me. It has led me to an experience which theologians label as pure grace.
Some can say I am deluding myself. They may be right. I concede that possibility, for I cannot rationally explain the conviction that has settled into my being. Yet I feel compelled to live trusting in that conviction and trying to live in harmony with the him/her/it it discloses. And so I do.
One of my favorite passages in the Bible is Psalm 46:10-11, which reads:
“Be still, and know that I am God.
I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth!”
The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
The Hebrew translated “be still” can be translated in various ways. An alternate translation is “stop fighting.” But I love the wording “be still.” It is sheer poetry to me. For in a paradoxical way, the practice of emptying oneself in silence seems to lead to a knowledge that cannot be acquired in any other way.