The great Tibetan Buddhist master Lama Govinda wrote that there is a “spiritual force that requires no philosophical argument or intellectual justification, because it is not based on theoretical knowledge but on…direct experience.” The Zen Buddhist might say that we can attain direct perception into the heart of reality. We might say, “be still and know that I am God.”
Deep spiritual realities are best entered by experience rather than by thought. Such realities may be ultimately incommunicable because no amount of words can adequately describe the inner meeting of the soul with God – though we must try in order to share. Thinking about such meetings automatically removes you from the experience. Funny how that works! If I catch the butterfly I can no longer experience the butterfly in flight. No wonder Chicago theologian Langdon Gilkey spoke of God’s “fragile presence.” Feminist theologian Nelle Morton used the image of God as the Listener who, listening to our deepest cries and whispers, can hear us into speech. God will not overwhelm you with loudness and fanfare but may be known as the “voice of silence” that came to Elijah in his cave (I Kings 19:12), like a gentle breeze, so slight that you can hardly feel it, soft as a feather on the cheek.
In order to feel the breeze or hear the whisper, in order not to crush the fragile Presence, in order to watch the butterfly, we have to be quiet and pay attention. Attentiveness is the first order, and in our society it is difficult to achieve.
We are distracted to the Nth degree. Our ability to live in quiet is overwhelmed by the toys of our culture: radio, TV, movies, computers, cell phones, music players, and the like. We jokingly remember the days when Timothy Leary urged us to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” He had in mind LSD; he would be chuckling to see how we have interpreted that in this day of electronic gizmos. It’s as if we don’t know we exist unless we’re either hearing or seeing something that demands our attention and takes us out of the experience of the present moment. We only know we’re here because we are excited or titillated. As the social critic Neil Postman said in the title of one of his best books, we are “amusing ourselves to death.”
Being quiet is not the goal. But whatever goal comes by attaining quiet and solitude, it surely won’t come unless and until we can find that inner silence that is often and usually offered when we put ourselves in a position to discover it. And that position requires outer quiet as well. Quiet is the threshold, not the doorway, but there can be no door without the threshold.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel defined sin as callousness. We become calloused against God’s presence because we are callous to the pain of our world and, in fact, to our own lostness. We have accepted as normalcy that people are insensitive, defensive, rude, and aloof from others. Our distractions make us think and act this way. We put so much energy into sustaining our distractions – which are also deceptions – that we become insensitive and blind. Under such circumstances the Presence can be terrifying. But when we turn from our callousness, take off the blinders, and open ourselves at a deep level, the Presence brings healing and light.
You have to cross the threshold and wait expectantly for the Presence to enfold you. Even if you do not yet know how to name it, that Presence will come. Be quiet.
published February 6, 2009