Reading: Psalm 62
Thomas Aquinas was an Italian priest and Dominican Friar, who lived in the 13th Century. He’s also one of the most influential theological thinkers of the last 2000 years. Even 7-800 years after he lived a lot of modern theology is indebted to him.
His most famous writing was called Summa Theologica, in which he tried to summarise the results of his life’s work. It’s been described as one of the classics of the history of philosophy and one of the most influential works of Western literature.
And there was plenty of it. It runs to some 3,500 pages. Apparently if you read at an average pace of 250 words a minute, it would take 61 hours and 24 minutes to read.
Fact for the day.
That’s a lot of words.
But on 6 December 1273 something happened to Thomas Aquinas which changed everything for him. He had some kind of religious experience during the mass. We can’t be sure what it was, but it had a profound effect. For afterwards he said now such things have been revealed to me that all I have written to me seems so much straw.
And from that day on, despite the protests of others, Aquinas went silent and wrote no more. So, when he died, in March 1274, his greatest work (remember 3,500 pages) was still unfinished.
What did Aquinas mean when he compared his work with straw? Basically today we might say he considered it ‘lightweight.’ He was only ‘skimming the surface.’ He realised that all his words, wisdom, intelligence, and genius, could not do justice to what he had seen.
No words could.
It reduced him to silence.
It might not be an especially religious experience, but perhaps you too have had some kind of experiences, and you’ve tried to describe it, but you realise no words can ever really fully capture it, describe it, explain it.
I’m reminded of the story, probably apocryphal, of a philosophy student at St Andrews who sat a three hour exam, with a single question… what is courage? I mean how do you answer that. Well, one student returned an answer book which was entirely blank, save for two words. ‘This is’
But try to describe that glorious sunset you saw on your last holiday. Or describe the smell of freshly ground coffee? There is a time when words fail us. When we think, what words can do it justice?
The same is true of a spiritual experience, or an encounter with the divine. There is a place for words. I’m using plenty right now. It is good to seek to explain and explore. But in the end we have to accept that words just aren’t going to be enough to properly describe it.
There is a place for silence.
We’ve been working through these various seasons, phases, or stages of the spiritual life. We’ve assigned each phase a word. Today we turn to the last one. Well, I say word. In fact this last one is not really a word at all.
I’ve just given it three dots. But over the next few I’m thinking of stillness, or silence.
Which I have to admit is a bit odd…
…speaking about silence!
When I mentioned it on Facebook last weekend, one of my friends said ‘this sermon on silence. You gonna talk much?’
I have to admit I was tempted to stand here for 20 minutes and see how you reacted. I decided that you’d just think I hadn’t done any prep!
Believe it or not, there is a piece of music, by the American composer called John Cage. It’s called 4’33’’. It comes in three movements, but it is effectively complete silence. Look it up on youtube. You can see it performed.
But over the last few weeks of this series, it’s that idea of silence, or stillness I want to think about. It was the main theme of the Psalm we shared together. In the church Bibles, the Psalm opens with the lines
For God alone my soul waits in silence
From him comes my salvation
Silence is an important part of many religious traditions, within the Christian faith, amongst people of other faiths…
Even beyond faith traditions, the health benefits of silence are widely recognised. It’s been said to
stimulate brain growth,
We live in a noisy world. And it’s got a lot noisier in the last half century or so. There’s a guy called Bernie Krause who records nature sounds for film and TV. He says that 40 years ago if you wanted to get one hour of pure, natural sound, undisturbed by any human-created noises like planes or cars, he would have needed to record for about 15 hours. Today to get that same 1 hour of undisturbed sound he needs to record for 2000 hours.
12 full weeks.
It’s like we feel the need to surround ourselves with noise all the time. I think the first time this really struck me was a few years back when Julie and I went to see the Table Tennis during the London Olympics. Every spare second was just filled with noise. And I don’t just mean background noise. Loud, blasting noise. God forbid you might want to just sit quietly, or discuss what you’d just watched with the person you came with.
We’re surrounded with noise from the alarm clock which wakes you in the morning, pretty much until we got to bed at night. Not just audible noise. Visual noise. A sports star can’t do an interview against a blank wall these days. It’s against a wall of company logos. When Rafa Nadal wins the French Open today (and I don’t think I need to be a prophet to predict he will) when he is presented with the trophy, he will suddenly be wearing a watch he wasn’t before. And it’s not so he can be sure he’s back in the locker room for the start of the new series of Poldark. It’s advertising. It’s visual noise.
Last weekend I became aware in a new way how we surround ourselves with noise. In our hotel in Belfast, it was the first time I’d seen this, there was a TV in the bathroom!
Of course, not all silence is good. Perhaps you are waiting for some news from a doctor, or about a job interview. And you’re looking at the phone saying ‘oh, come on, ring….’ That silence can be torture. Or silence can be used to punish you. Someone can give you the ‘silent treatment.’ Ever found yourself in a room where two people aren’t talking to one another and even without either of them saying a single word you can feel that tension. Or maybe sometimes you’re with someone and the conversation has dried up and you are desperately trying to
think of something to say. It’s uncomfortable. That’s not a good silence.
But there is another kind of silence. A kind of companionable silence. Silence can be a very intimate thing. It is the mark of a good, healthy relationship when you can sit with someone and be comfortable with one another without the need of words. If you always lived like that, I wouldn’t say it is a good thing. But you can just be relaxed in one another’s company.
Our relationship with God can be like that. Mother Theresa was once asked about her prayer life and she said ‘mostly, I listen.’ When she was then asked what God said to her she said ‘oh, mostly he listens.’
Prayer is good, but often we think of prayer as being about what was say to God. But we can also have that relationship with God where were are able to simply sit in stillness, in silence. That’s the kind of relationship with God that the Psalm is talking about.
But there is another dimension to silence, or stillness. You see to a certain extent we can’t do much about living in a noisy world. There are some things we can control. I have a choice whether I put the headphones on and listen to music as I walk to the office or not. But there is still going to be drilling, traffic etc.
But you know you could get yourself into an environment where there is complete silence, you could get away from it all, and you will still have the noise and the chatter in your own head. Just try sitting in stillness for a few minutes (we will a little later). You’ll be amazed at how many thoughts whizz through your mind. Did I turn the oven off? Mustn’t forget so-and-sos birthday. We’re out of washing powder, must add that to the shopping list… Then there is the unhealthy thoughts. The negative messages we feed ourselves. I’m rubbish, I’m stupid, I’m ugly. The noise we long to escape is not just out there. It’s in here.
Perhaps the internal noise is even more dangerous than the external. For as Frederick Buechener puts it ‘what deadens us most to God’s presence within us, is the inner dialogue we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought.
The kind of stillness, the Psalm is speaking of is not an absence of noise out there. All sorts is happening around him. People attacking him, people saying one thing to his face, another behind his back, people enjoying a good gossip about him, without checking whether the facts are true.
But the Psalmist has found an inner stillness, an inner strength, not because of how laid back he is, or because of the kind of person he is, but rooted in a relationship with God. He has a part to play in it, but it is based on his experience and his relationship with God.
But even if we recognise the benefits of silence, it is not something we find easy. And that inner stillness can be the hardest to find. This is not an entirely new phenomenon. The philosopher Blaise Pascal, as far back as the 1600s, said ‘all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’
I came across an example of this in a book called Silence in an Age of Noise, by Scandinavian explorer Erling Kagge. He speaks of an experiment conducted by the universities of Virginia and Harvard, where individuals ranging from teenagers, up to the age of 77, were left alone in a room, for between 6 and 15 minutes, without music, reading material, the chance to write, or their smartphones. Most found it uncomfortable. Some were allowed to take the test at home. Many of them admitted later that they had cut the experiment short.
Then they took it a step further. They placed a button in the room, which, if they pressed it would administer a painful electric shock. Each participant was given the shock before the test so they knew how painful it would be. Yet nearly half of the participants still pressed it to break up the silent time. The researchers concluded that being alone with ones thoughts was apparently so terrible people were prepared to effectively torture themselves, to avoid it. One participant pressed the button 190 times!
It’s been said that silence in the canvas on which music is painted. From the perspective of the writer of Psalm 62 inner silence or stillness is the foundation on which is life is built. The Psalmist makes space for that inner silence and lives his life out of that.
But there are a couple of things I want to draw out of the Psalm. One is that we might find ourselves thinking ‘yeh, but we’ve got to live in the real world.
There is a brutal realism to the Psalmist. He is aware of all that is happening. We may not be entirely sure what circumstances he was facing. Some think it might be weakness, some people think it is simply advancing age. He is well aware of his circumstances. And he sees them realistically.
And it’s his inner stillness that provides the foundation from which to face it. It helps to keep his God and his circumstances in perspective. It is because he trusts in God that his foundations won’t be shaken.
If he was writing this today we would speak of him practising mindfulness. All too often we live reactively to circumstances and we don’t take time to stop, to breath, to reflect and when we do that we get stuff out of perspective. As yourself this, have you ever looked back on something that really had you worried, then wondered why you worried about it? You’ve got it out of perspective.
The Psalmist response to that would be to find that place of inner stillness and silence and allow that to be the base from which he lives his life. Yes, he can see what is going on, and it does matter to him and he can see some of the attractiveness and temptation of how others would react to what he is facing.
But he also has his knowledge of God, his power, his unfailing love, and justice and that is what helps him keep it in perspective. It helps him gather himself in trust before God.
We can fall into the trap of thinking well that’s just the kind of chilled out guy he is. But that’s not the message of the Psalm. There is a single, tiny Hebrew word that appears at the start of 6 of the first 9 verses. It’s there in verse 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 9. It is אַךְ (ak).
I suppose the closest meaning we have for this is ‘surely’. The idea is that this is not something which just comes naturally to him. It is not his immediate instinctive reaction to life. It is learned through experience, sometimes bitter and difficult.
In a sense this word … silence, or stillness, it can feel very similar to the seasons of closeness with which I opened the series, of Here or O. That’s why the words are not just arranged in a sequence. It’s not because I could most easily fit them onto a screen. We are in a way coming full circle.
We are returning to that awareness of the presence of God. But this is not the simple, first flush of faith closeness. This is faith which has been around the block, has been through the seasons, perhaps several times. Who has been through all those difficult, dark seasons, yet has found that when he has stuck with God, God has brought him through it. It might not necessarily have worked out how he thought it would, how he thought it should, but God brought him through it.
So it’s like he starts Be silent my soul and wait for God. But all this other stuff floods in. But then we get a second, Be silent my soul and wait for God. It’s like he is telling himself ‘woah, woah, woah, calm down. And from there he starts to list all the things that God is to him. Hope, rock, salvation, fortress, deliverance, honour, mighty rock, refuge. The stillness emerges from a period of wrestling in his soul.
The truth is cultivating inner stillness isn’t easy.
But it is possible.
It takes practice.
It takes training.
Some days are better than others.
But with a little practice you will notice the difference. I notice it in my life. And I notice it when it gets out of kilter.
I’m not saying you will become a complete model of serenity. I don’t think the person who wrote Psalm 62 was. But if we do seek to cultivate it, we create the space into which God can speak to our hearts. It’s not, despite what some people might think, something that takes hours and hours. But perhaps two three minutes, a couple of times during the day, where you stop, still yourself, notice your breathing. You will find yourself slowly connecting with the still centre which is in each of us.
There is a time for words in prayer. We are invited to pour out our hearts to him, to cast all our cares on him. But there is also a time to just leave it with God. To sit in his presence. To allow him to speak into what you’ve brought him, not with answers, but with perhaps an awareness of who your God is. To bring him what you’ve got, but to acknowledge that the God revealed in Jesus is greater than that. And the God revealed in Jesus has committed himself to you. And allow him to create that inner silence, that still centre within you from which to live.