My latest column for the Catholic Free Press (which I will post on Tuesday) is about what I have been learning during this Lent about silence and stillness. Did you know there is a physical component to stillness within? I didn’t but I am learning.
I find it very hard to remain still, not only with my mind racing, but my body fidgeting. Honestly, I can’t sit still. Either I’m squirming in my chair trying to get comfortable (I have a chronic achy back, not serious, more of a nuisance) or scratching my head or fiddling with my hair or going after my phone.
A couple of weeks ago at Mass God gave me a gift of grace where I was able to experience true stillness. Not only was my mind still, focused solely on the altar and the priest, but my body was actually still. No fidgeting. No fixing my hair. Just totally still.
Today at mass it went further. I found myself no longer conscious of my body; thus I felt no pain in my back.
As a choir member, I have to stand for long periods of time and that can be rather painful. Often I will sit whenever I can, even if everyone else is standing. Today I made a conscious decision to remain standing because I was experiencing a sense of stillness. It focused my attention on God and away from my body and thus, I was able to ignore any back pain.
It gave me just a tiny clue as to how people in chronic pain who have a deep faith are able to cope. They are never free from pain but somehow, directing the focus to God perhaps helps to decrease the pain, making it more manageable. I’ve seen it with my friend Jackie who is often in pain.
Now granted, it is a monumental effort at times to reach that stillness (I often cannot overcome emotional pain). But the point of the matter is that there is something to stillness of the spirit spreading to the body.
Perhaps this is what Jesus means when he says his yoke is easy and his burden light. Even in the most horrendous of situations.
In my quest for a harmonious life I understand the need to be still. Certain tools help in that effort:
Reading, to organize my thoughts.
Praying, to tap into my soul, drawing me closer to God.
Time spent outdoors, especially in the Spring, to quiet myself.
The landscape is slowly coming to life here in New England and when I see signs of Spring, I think of Henry David Thoreau. His intimate knowledge of the outdoors came from a sense of mindfulness–no detail missed his watchful eye. He took the time to be still and observe. And in following that simple maxim, the world revealed itself to him.
New book on Thoreau
I recently reviewed a book on my Louisa May Alcott blog by Corinne Hosfeld Smith (certified tour guide of the Thoreau birthplace and author of Westward I Go Free: Tracing Thoreau’s Last Journey) calledHenry David Thoreau for Kids:
I welcomed this book because while I have always appreciated Thoreau’s message, I find his his works difficult to get through. The writing is dense, demanding your full attention. Many of us suffered through high school and college English classes with his classic Walden. And yet, that message of a different way of living got through to me even though I could not begin to digest all the words.
Making Thoreau concrete
What I loved about Henry David Thoreau for Kids were the twenty-one activities geared for middle school students that help you live out his ideas. Many of these activities are just as engaging for adults.
I was intrigued by the exercise which encouraged the participant to sit outdoors for thirty minutes in total silence, waiting for wildlife to appear. Sure enough, after a few moments birds and other creatures come close for observation. I was eager to try this exercise in my quest to be still.
Stillness, however, does not come easily in this busy world so I was grateful that Smith recommended another exercise to help me focus–creating a sound map.
Sitting in my lawn chair, I sketched the area you see here in my notebook and every time I heard a sound from nature, I drew an “x” where I thought I heard it and wrote down what it was. As you can see, I heard quite a bit!
From listening to observing
In the listening, I began to appreciate the visual imagery around me.
Stillness opens the inner eye
Stillness and mindfulness are hard to achieve in this high tech, multi-tasking, noisy world. Patience and due diligence are rewarded however with the opening of the inner eye, that which sees beauty and truth around us and eventually, within us. It’s a simple truth really: the wonder of life and how it was created, and how we are lucky to be alive despite all the challenges.
A compatriot of Thoreau’s, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once wrote of the transparent eyeball, an expression for which he was mocked. Wikipedia explains it this way:
“The transparent eyeball is a philosophical metaphor originated by Ralph Waldo Emerson. The transparent eyeball is a representation of an eye that is absorbent rather than reflective, and therefore takes in all that nature has to offer.”
Emerson experienced an epiphany that day–the discovery of the ability to read between the lines in the world around him, and come to an understanding of a deeper existence within him.
Once that eye is opened …
… you never want it to close. All of a sudden, the smallest things become lovely, compelling, even exciting. Once I became mindful of what surrounded me in the natural world, I couldn’t get enough of it, especially when it came to bird watching and kayaking.
And once I made a commitment to pay attention to what was there inside of me, allowing myself to to be drawn closer to my Creator, I find I can’t get enough of that either.
Silence is becoming an elixir.
I understand from the great mystics that you can learn to be quiet and still even in the midst of noise and chaos. Wouldn’t that be something! Somehow I think a bunch of people with that kind of inner harmony could truly change the world for the good. Think about it.
Your time of stillness
Try spending thirty minutes in the woods, in a field or by a pond this Spring. Create your own sound map and share it here. Let’s compare notes and find out how we are doing on our journey to harmony.
You can find out more about Henry David Thoreau for Kidshere, and read about the author, Corinne Hosfeld Smith, here.
Many people find coloring to be a wonderful way to relax and experience harmony in their lives. Is that you? Join my Email List to subscribe to this blog and receive your free Harmony coloring book (and more).
Familiarity breeds contempt. It’s true, even with prayer. Maybe especially with prayer.
Do the prayers taught to you as a child still mean anything to you?
How can something we’ve recited so many times still stir the heart and fill the soul?
Most of us have been reciting The Lord’s Prayer since we were children. In my Roman Catholic tradition, I was also taught the “Hail Mary,” a prayer to my guardian angel, and the “Act of Contrition,” said when I confessed my sins to the priest. I’ve said those many, many times.
In nursery school my children were taught a simple prayer before meals that is familiar to most everyone:
“God is great, God is good. Let us thank him for our food. Amen”
It was the prayer we said as a family before meals for many years.
Obtaining true silence, that stillness of the heart and mind open to hearing the whisper of God from within, is one of the most challenging aspects of the spiritual life. I believe it is the most important thing we can do for if the voice of God is continually drowned out with our busy lives, we will miss the truth.
Christian singer Michard Card says it so beautifully in his song, “The Final Word:”
You and me we use so very many clumsy words. The noise of what we often say is not worth being heard. When the Father’s Wisdom wanted to communicate His love, He spoke it in one final perfect Word.
What is Holy Silence? How do we quell the noise in our lives? One of my favorite bloggers, The Holy Rover, has a wonderful post about silence that I wanted to share with you.
One of the pleasures of being married to my husband has been the many stories I’ve heard through the years about philosophers and their peculiar habits. One of my favorites is about a friend of Bob’s who several years ago gave a lecture in a philosophy class and then was asked a follow-up question by a student. In response the professor said, “You know, that’s really a good question. Let me think about it.” And then he sat down and thought about it. And then he thought about it some more. He furrowed his brow, he got up and paced across the floor, he stood looking out the window with a faraway look in his eyes. The minutes ticked by slowly as the students watched him in growing bemusement. Finally he gave his answer, clear and well-reasoned. And after class the students spread the story as proof of just how strange philosophers can be.
What flummoxed the students, of course, was the extended silence. Most of us are uncomfortable with silence, especially in a public setting such as that. But even when talking privately to a friend, we typically rush in to fill any pause with words. So the example of the philosopher in class, of someone being comfortable with an extended silence, conveyed a message that probably went unlearned by most of his students.