catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 5 :: 2009.02.27 — 2009.03.13


Be still and know

I rise early. Not too early, but early enough to catch the silence. Sitting in my chair, candle lit, before the day begins, I listen for God. The birds’ soft stirrings just before dawn are the first sounds I hear. Then sound blossoms with the growing light. Birds, children, spouse, dog, cats, factory workers driving by, cows bellowing and garbage collectors all drown the silence of the new day pulling me into its incessant noised rhythm.

Only seven years ago, I said I couldn’t do it. I thought I would fall asleep. I was sure I couldn’t get out of bed. I imagined that nothing would “happen” in a time of silence unless I did something more than listen. But my spiritual director said, “Try five minutes.” So I did. And I kept coming back for more until the five minutes grew to sixty. Now it is not enough. But the cows remind me that I must move on to another kind of faithfulness. I blow out the candle, stand slowly and make my way to breakfast.

Just after college, I was adrift in a big city, looking for work, but more particularly, “God’s plan for my life.” A mentor reminded me that what God wanted from me was clearly spelled out in scripture, and that did not include a career path. Any path would do if I loved God, my neighbor and myself. That was small comfort, as I didn’t think I knew how to do any of those three. He reminded me to begin where I was, to do what I saw in front of me. So I got very involved in my church, fed homeless men and women at the McDonald’s across from my office and ignored loving myself.

Then I married, bought a business with my husband, had four children, went to seminary and befriended an alcoholic in my neighborhood, encouraging him through his battle to quit drinking. I lived the life in front of me. Actually, that was the first success in finding God: doing what my hands found to do with energy and dedication.

God had more in store for me, though. Almost twenty years out of college, I examined my full life and felt that something was missing. The Holy Spirit was gently nudging me out of my dutiful lifestyle into an exploration of the unknown and unknowable. I know now that God wanted me to let go of goodness and find freedom. That didn’t mean dumping my moral compass and doing whatever felt good, but it did mean beginning to see that life lived from the list of “shoulds” and “oughts” would fall short of God’s ultimate desire for me.

I believed then that letting go of control might result in something more than I was achieving on my own. What I wanted was a life that I called “organic,” where everything fit naturally into a connected web; where living would not feel forced because my actions would be the inevitable result of an inner motivation rather than a response to external demands from every direction. So I let go, and began a freeing journey that felt like soaring over an abyss, unfettered and disoriented, but somehow safe. A year later, I was a co-director of a contemplative retreat in Michigan, joyfully embracing the painful stripping of my soul, weeping and sometimes whining, but in a place where I could “be still and know” God. Eventually, I discovered that God is not so much the object of my attentive efforts, but the subject at my Center. If I turn toward God first, I live outside of others’ expectations, and am free to become what God desires for me.

Throughout this journey, I have repeatedly returned to Psalm 46 for instructions on letting go and turning toward God. The way is not easy. Even the introductory verse is both warning and comfort:  “God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble.” The comfort is that God is present. The warning is that a refuge is for refugees, strength is for the weak and trouble is coming, if not already apparent. The journey to God as Center has required me to leave the safety of a self-controlled life and become a refugee seeking God alone as my home. My weaknesses have surfaced in abundance, and the troubles do pile up.

The journey toward the Center requires that I look hard at the realities of life. The psalmist’s list of troubles is impressive: landslide, earthquake, typhoon, drought, battle siege, darkness, revolution, political intrigue or incompetence, thunder and volcano in that order. Not much is left out. What God brings to the earth affects me. I can find my troubles in this list or at least the metaphors for them.

But God is also standing with the viewer in the psalm. It’s as if God says, Stand here with me and see what I see. “The Lord Almighty is with [me], the God of Jacob is [my] fortress.” That is, God who is in control and has been throughout history, showing by his favor to the family of Israel that he cares generously for his creation-this God is protecting me in the midst of disaster.

The psalmist then invites me to view the “works of the Lord, and the desolations he has brought on the earth.” What a view! What I take for granted, the natural landscape, is so easily altered by God’s power. God even controls the militant bent of humans “making wars cease to the ends of the earth.” My small life is nothing in the face of such mastery.

I had been living my life asking the questions: what is my role in all of this? How can I help? What should I fix? What is my duty? The psalmist’s answer is surprising. I am to listen for God’s voice in the midst of all this chaos. God says: “Be still,” not, “Run and hide.” Not, “Take cover in that promised refuge.” Not, “Develop a relief program.” Be still. Notice. Pay attention. You are not sufficient to this task, but I am. I AM. God is. And that’s what is becoming real to me in my stillness-God IS. God is everywhere, in everything, active beyond imagining, caring, re-shaping, creating, controlling and my only possible response is adoration. Both people and the earth itself fulfill their intended purpose when they exalt “the Lord Almighty [who] is with us.”

How do I know what God wants me to do with my life, or this day or this moment? What method do I follow to discern my next steps? The answers begin with, “Be still, and know that I am God.” For when I acknowledge God as the Center and source of my being, I know better who I am. Then what I do flows naturally, more “organically” from this position. God is already working through me in the world. God will work through me no matter what I choose to do. Paying attention to God as the Center, nurturing this relationship often with periods of silence, bears fruit in a daily life that is rooted in God. I am now more in love with God, with neighbor and, wonderfully, with myself.

In her poem “Renascence,” Edna St. Vincent Millay, describes what happens in me in these moments of being still. The poem tells a tale of being buried alive yet remaining acutely aware of life in the world. The speaker has omniscient experiences of feeling “every grief,/ Each suffering” of the world’s people. From sorrow and hunger to shipwreck and drowning, the weight of the world presses down until it can be borne no longer and she sinks, dying, into the earth. After a terrible storm, the speaker is raised again to life and emerges from the grave charged with a fresh awareness of the “radiant identity” of God and of the boundaries of her heart and soul.  The hidden experience of suffering, shared with God in the darkness of death, has expanded her capacity to serve the world. She is made aware of her power to participate with God at work in the world and of the danger of failing to remember the lesson of the suffering dark. The poem ends with this warning:

The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky,-
No higher than the soul is high.
The heart can push the sea and land
Farther away on either hand;
The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through.
But East and West will pinch the heart
That can not keep them pushed apart;
And he whose soul is flat-the sky
Will cave in on him by and by.

For me to live free of the constraints of duty and enter fully into what God is already doing in the world requires trust. Sitting with God in silence each day grows deep roots of trust in me. It widens my heart and gives my soul a clearer view of God’s work. My early predictions of not accomplishing anything in the quiet have come true. I don’t do anything. Rather, I practice letting God be everything. I sit in the awareness that God IS. And that changes me.

I rise early. Not too early, just early enough to catch the silence before the day begins. In stillness, I find God.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus