Let us Ramble: Stillness and Listening

One of the many tools in my toolbox is the book “A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants” which was edited by Reuben Job and Norman Shawchuck. The following quote was a part of this week’s readings and it is from “Spirituality for Ministry” by Urban T. Holmes III.

“Many persons, ordained or not, live in a fairly constant state of noise, with their unresolved past and the uncertain present breaking in on them. They lack a still center and it is only for such a quiet point that we can listen attentively. When I was in my first parish, which was located in the middle of the city, a constant stream of indigents came through. One came into my office and wanted to tell me his story. I sat as if to listen but was deeply troubled inside over some issue now long forgotten. I remember I was fiddling with a pencil. The man stopped his story, looked at me and said, ‘Young Father, the least you can do is listen.’ He was right. There was no still center in me.”

I find this quote to be inspiring. If you come by my door on any given day you might catch me at prayer. When I’m praying in my office I hang up a blue poster I had made over my office door’s window. It looks like this…

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The quotes I put on that door-hanger are there with great intention. The Henri Nouwen quote always catches me in much the way that the quote from the Guide catches me. Nouwen was right–a life without that quiet center can easily become very destructive.

I don’t know Father Holmes myself, but I would wager to bet that he would tell you that his inability to focus himself into stillness did damage that day. I know that there have been moments when my inability to find that silent and still place led to great destructiveness. Sometimes that destructiveness came out of a place of violent response without care and sometimes that destructiveness came out of a place where I was unable to respond with intentionality instead of reactivity. The fact of the matter is that a lack of stillness made me unable to be the person I needed to be in those moments.

Of course it isn’t easy to enter into that stillness. In the book Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Calhoun, the following quote on silence always strikes me as true:

“In quietness we often notice things we would rather not notice or feel. Pockets of sadness or anger or loneliness or impatience begin to surface. Our own outer agenda looms larger than our desire to be with God in silence. And as the silence settles in and nothing seems to be happening, we often struggle with the feeling that we are wasting time. Everything we notice in this struggle can become an invitation to prayer. Like a can opener, the silence opens up the contents of our heart, allowing us deeper access to God than we experience at other times. As we remain in the silence, the inner noise and chaos will begin to settle. Our capacity to open up wider and wider to God grows. The Holy One has access to places we don’t even know exist in the midst of the hubbub.”

I am betting that Father Holmes found a bit of himself on that day when he was unable to find stillness, but I wonder what depths could be achieved if he had the presence of mind to enter into stillness before listening.

I often find myself in a completely different place if I slow myself before I enter into deep conversation. The stillness I find in silence can enable me to listen to others while being aware of what is in my own silence.

When talking to a pregnant mother I might easily be distracted into talking about what it would feel like to become a father again. Thankfully my own periods of stillness have revealed a desire in me to want to change that particular subject to revolve around my family. As a result I can actively resist my own temptation. The same is often true when I enter into conversations around rough childhoods, difficult relationships, and forgiveness. It is in learning to be still and silent that I have become a better person when it comes to having conversation with others about their lives.

In truth, silence is never especially easy, but it has many benefits. What challenges do you see to silence in your life? Does the inability to find that still center affect the way that you go about life?

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