I Woke Up This Morning (or, more accurately, The Sounds of Silence)

There is a poem I learned in grade school titled I Woke Up This Morning.  A half century later, I still know the poem by heart.  The child narrator of the poem describes his day, from the moment that he “woke up this morning At quarter past seven [and] kicked up the covers and And stuck out [his] toe.”  From that moment on, his day goes downhill – a series of “no”s and instruction and correction.  It ends with his declaration

Well, I said
That tomorrow
At quarter past seven
They can
Come in and get me.
I’m Staying In Bed.

The lines came to mind as the antithesis of my feeling when I got up this morning.  I woke up from my bed in the retreat house with a smile and a wink at God and then stood at the window in my room looking out at the lake with a sense of excitement at what these days will bring.

The retreat opened last night with dinner followed by an opening group session where the 55 or so retreatants and the 10 directors introduced themselves.  After that we had our opening Mass, the end of which signalled the beginning of the silence retratants will observe during the retreat.

In my view, silence is an incredibly important part of the retreat experience. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once observed, “By remaining silent we allow the other person to speak…[a] space is created for mutual listening, and deeper human relationships become possible. It is often in silence, for example, that we observe the most authentic communication taking place between people who are in love: gestures, facial expressions and body language are signs by which they reveal themselves to each other.”

“A space is created for mutual listening.” That mutual listening is something that was important to St. Ignatius. Ignatius does not believe our prayer should be a one-sided conversation where we do all the talking. Rather, we want to let God speak to us, and the silence helps that. Silence allows us to let go of some of the noise and distraction that prevents us from really focusing and hearing what God wants to convey to us. There is that beautiful passage in the First Book of Kings in the Hebrew Scriptures about God speaking to Elijah: God spoke to Elijah not in the storm, not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in the quiet gentle whisper which could only be heard in the silence. We want to adopt the posture of Samuel: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

And so I encouraged my retreatants not only to think of silence as refraining from conversation, but also to try to avoid checking e-mail, surfing the net or even doing a lot of reading outside of the material they are praying with.

Where do you find your silence?


What We Hear in the Silence

We all recognize our need for silence, even if we don’t always give ourselves enough of it. I’ve both written about and read many things about silence and its value.

What is it that we hear in the silence? I have several times in the last week or so come back to a beautiful answer to that question. It came in a daily devotional from Luther Seminary, written by Betsy Dartt, Greenfield Lutheran Church, Harmony, Minn. She writes:

The voice of God is best heard when I keep silent and listen. In the silence, a still, small voice echoes in the head with sounds of splashing waters as God opens the heavens saying, “This is my beloved Son.” In the silence, the Word made flesh enriches the heart with bread and wine saying, “Do this in remembrance of me.” In the silence, the clanging of pounding nails in the body is pierced with the cry “It is finished.” In the silence, the grinding of a rolling gravestone resounds in the soul with angels’ alleluias—He is risen! When I listen, the voices of heavenly creatures teach me new words of praise. When I listen, my small voice harmonizes with songs of people lifting holy hands in awe. When I listen, I can hear the Lamb on the throne of God saying, “Let everyone who hears, ‘Come…'” (Revelation 22:16)

You can view her reflection here, where you will also find the words to the hymn, Let all Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.

What do you hear in the silence?

Come To the Silence

Advent is just about over and tomorrow is Christmas Eve. Even for those of us who have managed to find time for prayer during these last few weeks of Advent, this last day or so before Christmas can turn into a frenzied rush of activity. Those last few gifts we need to buy. The presents that still need to be wrapped. The baking still to be done. For some, there will be travel today or tomorrow morning. For others, last minute work projects that simply must be done before the week is out.

Times like this, when it is hardest to do so, are the times we need to take a few moments to still our minds and our hearts. To let go of the activity, the noise, the frenzy and to simply rest in silence with God.

Give yourself the gift of silence today. Even if it is only for five minutes. (Surely, as busy as you are, there are five minutes you can give to yourself?) If you need an invitation to do so, here is one from God, written by an unknown author, that I received by e-mail yesterday. I hope you will accept it.

And God said…

Come to the silence, life is so loud – And your soul needs a break from the clock and the crowd.

Come to the silence, And let my love start, To heal all life’s hurts, And comfort your heart

Come to the silence, Be calm and be still, Just rest in my arms – for today, that’s my will…

Come to the silence, In search of my peace, Gently your doubts and your fears will all cease.

Come to the silence – Here, take my hand, Have you forgotten, that I understand?

Info-Techno Sabbath

Following up on the theme of letting go of what we cling to that I wrote about yesterday, here is an idea for the weekend (or perhaps one day of the weekend) prompted by a post my friend John sent me. Take an info-techno Sabbath, that is, completely unplug for a 24-hour period – no computer, no iPad, no telephone.

The idea for the info-techno Sabbath comes from Keith Miller and he describes it like this: “The Sabbath . . . had two purposes: rest and remembrance of God. An info-techno Sabbath, as I dub it, has the same goals: rest for our minds and over stimulated senses and remembrance that life is bigger than the news stories, stock quotes, and sports scores. It’s bigger than our selves. There is, in fact, a God. And we are not it.”

What most drew me in the post talking about Miller’s idea was this paragraph:

“One of the most basic biblical insights,” says theologian J.I. Packer, “is that whatever controls and shapes one’s life is in effect the god one worships.” We consider it peculiar that Muslims stop five times a day to offer prayers to Allah, yet we stop what we do five times an hour to pay homage to our e-mail. For many of us, the one true god to whom we give our devotion is the deity known as IT: information technology.

Perhaps I was so struck by the paragraph because of how often I check my e-mail or stop to post something on Facebook. Go to the article I linked to above and see how much of the author’s tongue-in-cheek description of his wasting four hours on various computer related activities could describe you.

We need time with God. Quiet time. Uninterrupted time. No phones, no computers, no iPads. Just you and God. Try it.

Getting Rid of the Noise

One of our excursions while in the northern part of the state of Minnesota was to the Soudan Underground Mine. The mine now houses the Soudan Laboratory, one of a small number of deep underground physics laboratories around the world. The lab is about a half mile underground.

Why operate a physics lab so far underground? Basically, the earth acts as a shield controlling the amount of cosmic rays that reach the sensitive machinery in the lab designted to study neutrinos. Or as the guide said simply: it is just too noisy on the surface to hear what we need to hear. The difference between a facility above ground and one underground, he suggested, is like the difference between trying to carry on a conversation during a rock concert and hearing classical music playing in the background.

Moral of the story: It is important to filter out the extraneous noise to hear what we are trying to hear.

The analogy to our spirtiual life is a pretty obvious one. God speaks to us all of the time, but we often don’t hear what God is trying to say to us. James Martin, S.J., in his newest book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, writes, “Being silent is one of the best ways to listen to God, not because God is not speaking to you during your noisy day, but because silence makes it easier to listen to your heart… If your environment (inside and outside) is too noisy, it might be hard to hear what God, your friend, is trying to say.”

What it means to get rid of the noise will vary from person to person. For most of us it doesn’t require something as drastic as moving a half-mile under the surface of the earth. It may be as simple as unplugging from our cell phones and internet now and then during the course of the day. But whatever you do, think about how you might give yourself the gift of silence.

Our Need for Silence

I often have people say to me that they pray in the midst of their activities – while driving in the car, in the midst of chores, etc. This is a good thing, and is certainly consistent with St. Paul’s admonition that we pray unceasingly.

But the kind of praying that we do as we go about our daily tasks is no substitute for taking some quiet time with God each day, time in which we are focused on nothing else but God. For some that time is morning or evening; others manage to find ways to take a break in the middle of their day. (My friend and colleague Jennifer closes her office door at noon every day, putting out a “do not disturb” sign and does her Centering Prayer.) It doesn’t matter when it occurs, but it does matter that it occurs.

In Love and Living, Thomas Merton wrote: “Silence helps draw together the scattered and dissipated energies of a fragmented existence. It helps us to concentrate on a purpose that really corresponds not only to the deeper needs of our own being but also to God’s intentions for us.”

We need that silence. We need the space that silence gives us. Space to see connections. Space to process. Space for us to see more clearly and to hear more clearly. Give yourself that space. Give yourself that silence.

Liturgy of the Hours

It is so easy for our days to become one thing after another, with no time for a break to breathe. We all have so much work do to, so many things we need to get done, that it seems some days like we start up the motor upon rising and keep revving it all day long. I know that when I have a particular project I’m working on, it is easy to get into that mode – do my morning prayer and then go off and running.

One of the wonderful things about staying in a Benedictine Monastery is the Liturgy of the Hours. Here at St. Benedict’s Monastery, in addition to Mass each day, the sisters generally gather for Morning Prayer at 7:00a.m., Noon Prayer at 11:30a.m. and Evening Prayer at 7:00p.m. (There are some variations in the schedule.) I’ve participated in just about all of those prayer sessions since my arrival here on Monday, although I’ve almost been late a few times, as I’ve lost track of time during my writing.

There is something really wonderful about taking time like this several times a day to come together in prayer. Everyone is busy and could be doing something else during that time, but they stop what they are doing for the half hour or so of the prayer period. At most sessions there are in the neighborhood of 100 nuns in the oratory.

These periods of prayer serve both as a reminder of why we are doing the work we are doing and as a chance to express gratitude to God. For me, that includes gratitude for the opportunity to be here in this incredibly hospitable environment to do my work, surrounded by some truly terrific women.

Be Still

Be still and know I am God, says the psalmist in Psalm 46. It is a reminder I periodically need. I think it is a reminder many of us need now and then.

Actually it is a reminder we need quite a lot. We are always doing.  Always going.  Always planning three steps ahead to get everything done.  We spend so much time doing so many things. Then we do some more. We spend so much time doing (and worrying about the things we didn’t get done) that there is very little time for us to simply be.

Sometimes we need to just stop.  To just be in stillness.  To sit with God with no agenda. Perhaps to give God a chance to get a word in edgewise. I read the other day, “Stillness is the language God speaks, and everything else is bad translation.”

So find a few moments today to stop. To be still.

Be still and know I am God.
Be still and know I am.
Be still and know.
Be still.


I’m counting down the days (20) until my annual 8-day silent directed retreat.  Eight days of just God and me, together in the silence.

It is hard to capture in a few words how important that quiet time is for me.  Thomas Merton does a good job of explaining the importance of these times of silence with God in Honorable Reader: Reflections on My Work.  He writes: 

If there is no silence beyond and within the words of doctrine, there is no religion, only religious ideology. For religion goes beyond words and actions, and attains to the ultimate truth in silence. When this silence is lacking, where there are only the “many words” and not the One Word, then there is much bustle and activity, but no peace, no deep thought, no understanding, no inner quiet. Where there is no peace, there is no light. The mind that is hyper-active seems to itself to be awake and productive, but it is dreaming. Only in silence and solitude, in the quiet of worship, the reverent peace of prayer, the adoration in which the entire ego-self silences and abases itself in the presence of the Invisible God, only in these “activities” which are “non-actions” does the spirit truly awake from the dream of a multifarious and confused existence.