Contemplatives say we rest in the silent presence of God.
This is a little different, though, than what we usually mean by silence, which is just the absence of noise.
In the contemplative life we cultivate an inner silence, we take a break from thought. Even though we’re known by our words and actions the seed for those things is found in our thoughts and emotions.
Scripture in fact emphasizes a God who is active, who heals, who delivers, who restores and so on. This plays out on a grand scale in the biblical stories.
In our own lives He often shows up a little differently. And this too is borne out in scripture. It seems to be embedded in creation.
In Genesis darkness is on the face of tehom or the deep, and ruach elohim the divine breath or wind “hovered over the waters.” Creation accounts from the ancient new East often assume creation beginning with primordial waters.
There’s a mythic resonance here. This is the potential energy that provides the source of life and creation. It’s what YHWH then shapes into the stuff of creation.
When He finally speaks “Let There Be Light!” (itself an inspirational quote if ever there was one) it comes against the backdrop of a pre-existing silence, full and kinetic. It’s as if all the possible forms and shapes and colors and sounds and words were latent within that energy, waiting to be unleashed.
That potential is in the deep, tehom, in the deep, and the breath of God gives it shape.
Some contemplative practices involve attending to the breath as a simple exercise. Simply notice it. We say God is closer than our breath. Some biblical scholars think the Hebrew name for God, YHWH, was like a phonetic transcription of the in-breath and the out-breath. YH-WH.
This in breath and outbreath is the ongoing rhythm of life, of creative energy as we live and move and have our being.
But this, too, plays out against the vast backdrop of silence.
Our thoughts and emotions are the same as we pay close attention. They come. They go. In our practice we return to the silence. We let go of the need to achieve, to be someone, to feel guilty, to feel powerful, to strive. It’s a fertile, open space. It’s a space of pure being that allows for new maturity to emerge, new insight to take place. A greater peace and grace to emerge.
When we identify purely with our small selves, our egos, we experience suffering of one form or another. And then we often wonder, where is God? Why does He remain silent?
Sometimes, of course, there are divine manifestations, and God seems to be clearly active in the world. Other times, that’s not the case.
So many who achieve a depth and wisdom in their spiritual lives seem to learn that growth and change take place precisely in that silent space, when the ego is softened.
A student of mine recently shared in her practice she has learned not to try to defeat her ego, but to hold it in a tender embrace.
So often, we make of our YHWH, our tribal God of the breath who is close to us our slave. We want him to work on our behalf, bending the world to the shape of our will.
In the practice, we yield to God in the silence, open and attentive – His will be done, without having predetermined what that might be. Here the softening takes place. We become fertile soil.
As Teresa of Calcutta put it, “God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grow in silence? The more we receive in silent prayer, the more we can give in our active life.”
Center for Contemplative Mind In Society on Silence
Richard Rohr on Solitude and Silence
A Little Book of Contemplative Practices from Contemplative Light