“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, [the Spirit] will guide you into all the truth…” John 16:12-13
There is more. Jesus is here saying that God’s Spirit will come to us in Jesus’ stead, and that the Spirit will guide us into all truth. There is more yet that Jesus has to reveal to us: more than what he revealed in his own lifetime, more than what has been recorded in the Scriptures, more than what has been remembered by our predecessors in the faith. Jesus has more for us – as much as we can bear – to be revealed to us through God’s Spirit.
How can we know the Spirit’s guidance? In many different ways, ways which will be very familiar to some of us and very foreign to others of us. We read in the New Testament, the Spirit will guide us through dreams and visions; or through the gift of prophecy of what is to come; or through the gift of tongues, a kind of foreign language of praise. To some the Spirit will give a gift of knowledge, a way of knowing what one could not otherwise have known; or through the gift of wisdom, which is a profound gift of discernment; or through the channeling of healing or other powerful actions in what could only be described as miraculous. The Spirit will work in us with the gift of comfort or strength, in what otherwise could crush or cripple us. (1)
The Spirit will guide us into all truth in many and diverse ways; however there is one essential condition for being receptive to the Spirit’s guidance. A necessary condition. We need to be still and silent in order to listen and apprehend. Still and silent. That can be quite difficult. Being still and silent in this day and age is particularly challenging as we face a 24/7 bombardment of information coming at us online and over the media, on billboards and storefronts, at home and work and school. There may also be a tyranny of urgent expectations coming at you, faster all the time, at a pace to which you can easily collude. And many of you probably carry something like an iPhone or Blackberry that makes you available, on call, most all of the time to anyone. There’s a great danger, given the technology at hand, to be “virtually connected” all over the globe in any given time, and feigning to be masters of multi-tasking, yet not be really and fully present in any one place and time. For God to be really present to us, we must be really present to God to be able to take in the guidance of God’s Spirit. It’s called “being there.” And for this, it’s essential to figure a practice of stillness and silence into the cadence of our day and life.
The English word “silence” comes from the Latin, dēsinere, which means to stop. Without silence, life is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, at least nothing we’ll ever figure out.(2) We need the space of silence to separate the wheat from the chaff. We take in so much information, so many stimuli in the course of a day. What is important? What do you attend to? You need silence to claim, compare, and connect your life’s experiences. Silence for the soul is like punctuation to language. Without the silencing effect of punctuation, and without space between words, it all becomes gibberish. And so with life. Without silence, without the pauses, life is like a run-on sentence, which can be crazy-making, and will not make sense. You need silence to defrag your soul. You need silence to attend to God’s invitation and revelation today. In relationship to yourself, if you do not incorporate silence into your life, you will either need to anesthetize yourself, or you will need to distract yourself mightily because what we face in contemporary life exposes us to so much disorder and pain. In your relationships to other people, if you have not incorporated silence into your life, you will not have space in your heart for them, and you will be, at best, a dispenser of information, and people are already overloaded with information.
It’s only by claiming silent space that you can sift and sort, file and delete what you’ve taken into your being. Otherwise it all automatically gets saved to the hard drive of your soul. Whether or not you ever access it again, it is taking up space in your soul, and it can weigh you down or even poison you. I’ll use a biological metaphor. You take in food. To be healthy, your body must process that food: digest and incorporate what is essential and then pass what is now waste. Without that amazing, well-honed digestive process, your body will become sluggish, and then toxic. And so it is with the soul. You will be overwhelmed, guaranteed, if you do not claim the space to listen deeply to what you have taken in: what belongs, and where, and why; what needs to be composted or discarded; what needs to be given up to God in the form of oblation. The digestive process of the soul: listening deeply, which is about our obedience to God.
The English word obedience comes from a Latin root obaudire: to listen deeply. That is obedience. The opposite of being obedient is to stop listening, to be utterly deaf, which, in Latin, is absurdus: absurd. Life becomes absurd if we fail to listen deeply. But when we listen deeply to ourselves and to one another and to God’s Spirit, we will discover life’s meaning. Life is not just a random series of events, like scattered musical notes; life is actually a score being orchestrated. If you will just stay with it, you’ll recognize the composition, the crescendos and decrescendos, the allegros and largos and resolutions, and you’ll notice the need for the rests, which are crucial. And life is a piece, not pieces, but an orchestrated piece. If you don’t really listen, what you hear will be a cacophony.
Obedience to God’s Spirit comes from listening intently. If you are not intentional how silence figures into your life so that you can listen deeply, you will spend your energies reacting rather than responding to life. A reaction may be nothing more than a reptilian response to life. Life really wants to be lived out of the depths of our soul. God shares life with us on an invitational basis. God operates in life; God invites us to co-operate, and to do that we must be still, silent, and listen so that we can respond to the recurring invitations and revelations of God’s Spirit. St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic, said “silence is God’s primary language.”(3)
Listening is golden because this is the primary posture of revelation. Have you had the experience of trying to talk to someone, wanting to tell them something important, and though they said they would listen, yet they would not stop doing what they were doing. I had this experience not long ago. Actually, one of my brothers here in the monastery had this experience with me not long ago. He asked if we could speak and I said “sure, of course.” And he preceded to pour out his soul while I listened. Actually, at the same time as I was listening, I was trying to fix the handle on a desk drawer in front of me. The handle was falling off. But I was listening. I even told my brother that a couple of times when he sort of paused. “I’m listening,” I said. He finally barked, “Curtis!” I was jarred, and then aware, and then apologetic, and finally I was really present to him, really listening. He knew it and I knew it. I presume that God wants to speak to us, that God’s Spirit wants to break through to us.
The greatest obstacle in your being able to be silent and listen is the noise. And it is not the traffic noise. It’s not the neighbor’s boom box, nor the children on the play lot, nor the person who is talking too loudly on the other side of the room. The obstacle of noise most often comes from within us. A contemporary monk, Martin Laird, says sometimes the interior chaos going on in our heads is “like some wild cocktail party of which we find ourselves the embarrassed host.” (4) Three things will quiet the interior noise within your own soul so that you can be still, silent, and listen:
- Get on good speaking terms with yourself. If you spend endless energy fighting yourself – scolding, correcting, cursing, blaming, comparing yourself, stop it. That has to stop. It’s deafening, it consumes a massive amount of energy, and it will surely drown out any revelation of God’s Spirit. That’s the truth. Stop the interior argument and say “yes” to your life. Get on very good speaking terms with yourself. You need you. You’re the best you’ve got. Today is the rest of your life. Say “yes” to your life. If you need help with this, get the help. You’re worth it.
- Take responsibility for your life. If you have a running interior argument going against someone or something in your past – someone who has disappointed or offended or terribly hurt you – you need to forgive them. Forgive them, not because they ask for it, or want it, or deserve it, or are even are of their need for it, but for your own sake. Otherwise you continue to give power over your life to this person or these people, and they continue to hurt you. Forgiveness is a liberation, your liberation. Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself, and it will quiet an incredible amount of interior, deafening, exhausting noise, given you interior freedom, and help you be still and quiet, to listen to the gift of life today. That’s the truth of it. If you need help with this, get the help. You’re worth it.
- Thirdly, use the gift of your breathing. Being attentive to your breathing will help you be really present – help you be in God’s real presence – and will help clear the passageway to the Spirit. The English word “spirit” comes from the Latin, spiritus, meaning “breath.” The Latin word spiritus is a translation of the Greek word pneuma, which means “spirit” and “breath,” and in the biblical tradition, both of these words are connected to the Hebrew word for God’s Spirit, ruah, which also means “breath.” (5) At the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus breathes on the apostles and says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (6) Use your own breath as a passageway to and from God’s Spirit.
- If your soul is clogged with debris – fear, anxiety, anger, resentment, despair, whatever debris – use your breathing like respiratory therapy for your soul. Just keep exhaling whatever debris is clogging your soul. Keep exhaling it. Keep exhaling the debris. How long? Until you are freed from the debris.
- And then, use your breathing to inhale what you need of God’s light, and life, and love; inhale the gift of joy, of hope, of peace, of courage. Whatever you need. Keep inhaling what you need from God until you have what you need. Keep breathing.
To know the guidance of God’s Spirit, you need to be still and silent in order to listen. In the cadence of your day and life, create some enclosures of silence where you pause and breathe and are really present to God’s presence. The Spirit Jesus leaves with us is intent to lead us into all truth. And in this day and age, when there is so much confusion, and when so many live with despair – maybe you? – don’t we need to be led, and don’t we need help to know the truth, God’s truth. Listen for it. The Psalmist says: “Be still before the Lord; wait patiently. ” “For God alone my soul in silence waits.” (7)
1 See, for example, Acts 2:17, 4:31, 9:6, 9:31; Romans 8:26-27; 1 Corinthians 12:8; 1 John 5:6.
2 An allusion to Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”
3 St. John of the Cross (1542-1591), Spanish mystic and Carmelite friar and priest.
4 Martin Laird O.S.A., Into the Silent Land, p. 4.
5 Word derivations of “spirit” from The Dictionary of Etymology.
6 John 20:22.
7 See Psalm 37:7; 46:11; 130:3.
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