When Sting gave the commencement address for Berklee’s graduating class of 1994, he ironically spoke to the music students of the power of silence. The rock legend admitted: “I’m
wondering whether, as musicians, the most important thing we do is
merely to provide a frame for silence. I’m wondering if silence itself
is perhaps the mystery at the heart of music? And is silence the most
perfect music of all? … To people in the modern world, true silence is
something we rarely experience. It is almost as if we conspire to avoid
it. Three minutes of silence seems like a very long time. It forces us
to pay attention to ideas and emotions that we rarely make any time
for. There are some people who find this awkward, or even frightening.”
What if, in our spiritual life, all of our business and dialogue and wordy prayers were merely a frame for silence?
What if we’re missing the point and all of our frenzy is just the
parentheses around the main idea, enclosing a space where the heart of God
The practice of "contemplation"
This is the basis of
, also known as contemplation
. While the word “mysticism” may conjure up images of a smoke-and-mirrors form of faith, in actuality, this is
a celebratory exploration of the incomprehensible and mysterious aspects of the nature of God.
Many big names in our faith’s history advocated mysticism, including Brother Lawrence, Teresa of Avila and Augustine.
ices include silence and solitude,
of a particular Scripture passage)
, daily office (prayers for specific hours of the day) and other liturgical activities that encourage a
still mind and body but
an active spirit.
form of prayer continues to be a bit of a mystery, even for theologians
and seasoned contemplatives. One of the foundational pieces of
literature on the subject, the anonymously written The Cloud of Unk
nowing, is basically about the
distant nature of God, even in t
his intimate state. It’s true,
face of God can be very murky at times, His will unclear, His voice
muffled. But mysticism and contemplation are not about explaini
ng God, not even understanding H
im, but pursuing and being with Him, even
in willing and loving ignorance.
Perhaps this is why
become a controv
issue within the church. We want to know everything, explain every
aspect of our doctrine and practice so as to leave no holes, no room
for criticism or questioning. Talk about removing the mind and relying
purely on our spirits, the power of repetitive readings
and pin-drop silence … well, our “new age” red flag goes up. Many approach mysticism with caution, if at all.
Rickey Cotton is the department chair of English and Foreign Languages
at Southeastern University, where he teaches a course on Christian
Mystics. Of the contemplation controversy, he
tend to either want to be controlling or fearful of the things they don’t understand.” Cotton
our relationship with God to our romantic pursuits. “We want him to
have a bit of mystery and unpredictability. And at the same time, we’re
afraid of the things we can’t control.”
Cotton concludes that it all comes down to one’s definition of mysticism.
“A deep spiritual communion with the Lord, without grand
visions or emotional static.”
Just be quiet
Then there is this issue of silence.
is no easy task, especially for this generation.
we are e
ither obsessed with sound
or afraid of silence.
Think about it.
You probably wake up to music,
play it while you get ready, listen to it during the morning commute, leave it on to help you “focus” while you get work done
, and wind down to more soothing melodies
in the evening
Televisions and computers
in the background, even when not
being directly used
We measure our social productivity by the number and quality of our
conversations held each day. Even when not talking, we’re making our
voice heard by our
limited audience via social networ
king. Every street corner, phone call,
text message, radio station
and coworker bombards us in this
daily cacophony. And we allow it.
We’ve conditioned ourselves to only be able to operate with
We welcome and encourage a life
of feedback and static.
Furthermore, we almost feel instinctively that any time spent quietly immobile is a “waste of time.”
When did we deceive ourselves into believing that sound is an equivalent to activity
“God is silence.” While this may be a hyperbolic statement, Cotton
feels it can help prioritize the motives of a contemplative lifestyle.
“All of this noise is inside of silence. Silence is bigger than noise.
It can be found everywhere. The world was conceived out of silence.
Almost everything is contained within it,” explains Cotton.
And yet, everything is within God. He is before all things, and in h
im all things are held together (Col. 1:17).
Jones, an author and theologian of the emergent movement, has written
much on the spiritual practices of contemplation, particularly in his
books The Sacred Way
and Divine Intervention
that, “we discover our true identity, not as do-ers
, but as be-ers
. Our tasks in this life boil down to: ‘B
e still, and know that I am God (Psalm 26:10).
‘ Indeed, this is why many of us avoid silence and solitude—because our self-identities are bound up in our busy-
So how do you actually do it?
also acknowledges that it is difficult to ensure time to practice
solitude and meditation, and suggest scheduling it, just as you would
any of your other duties.
to intentionally set aside time to be with God—
maybe a few minutes, maybe a few days.
And don’t approach it as you would the hurried
structure of your typical morning “quiet time”—playing worship music in the background,
drinking a cup o’
reading your obligatory chapter, and then giving God you
agenda and requests for the day.
Rather, examine contemplative practices and readings and select one you’d like to try (Jones’ The Sacred Way
is an excellent resource). Allow yourself a time window to get used to
the quiet, to quit listening to your stomach growl and your mind
wander. Don’t answer your phone. Don’t look at the clock. Don’t make
demands of God or of your emotions.
Strip yourself of expectations, and determine to just be.
you still haven’t taken your headphones out long enough to consider the
refreshing and fulfilling benefits of contemplation, remember that
Jesus himself practiced this, and perhaps couldn’
t complete his work
without this intimate time with his Father. Richard Foster, noted theologian and author of books such as Celebration of Discipline, says, “The seeking out of solitary places was a regular practice for Jesus. So it should be for us.”
Maybe it would do us all a lot of good to ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” And then shut up.