Yesterday we observed the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the pandemic lockdown. Needless to say this was not a happy anniversary. One of the results of the lockdown was a dramatic drop in traffic on the roads and in the air. There was a wonderful byproduct to this drop in traffic—quiet. Without airplanes overhead, motorcycles thundering through town, and the day-to-day automobile and truck traffic the ambient noise level dropped. All of a sudden, it seemed like the birds, no longer competing with all of that noise, decided to chirp more often and for longer periods of time. The quiet was glorious, amazing, and at times a little eerie.
At first I think many folks relished the quiet as a lovely respite from the otherwise noisy world. However, as time went on we started to feel lonely and sought out sounds that reminded us of being normal. Also, as restrictions eased a bit, some of the traffic noise started coming back. Planes started flying into Dulles more frequently. Motorcyclists came back in droves and brought the sound of their exhaust with them. For merchants and restauranteurs those sounds might translate into the ring of the cash register. For others, birds included, it is the encroachment on our break from the noisy modern world.
What I am finding for myself and others is a craving for a return to periods of quiet. We cannot control the noise of the world around us, but, with some practice, we can control the noise in our heads. The constant chatter of the monkey brain or the cocktail party of voices that are our thoughts can be stilled. Religious folks of all stripes know this and seek this. By silencing these voices, we have the opportunity for the one true voice of God to break in and be discernable.
In recent years, what had been a spiritual practice of monks in the East and the West, has been popularized as mindfulness. That is the seeking of inner peace and calm through the stilling of the mind. In Christianity, this practice, as taught by the late Fr. Thomas Keating and the Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault, is called Contemplative Prayer. It is a simple practice, but like most simple practices it can be hard to master.
First, adopt a prayer word or phrase. This is something you chant silently to help clear your head of the other chatter. It is also the word that you use to bring yourself back to the center when you discover your mind has wandered off. The word can be simple such as surrender, be still, or a little more complex such as the Jesus prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”)
Once you have a prayer word find a quiet and spare place to sit. While an icon or candle may be helpful, too much visual stimulation is counterproductive. Sit erect, not at attention just not slouching, with your feet firmly planted on the floor. Allow your hands to rest lightly in your lap. Focus on your candle or gently close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths in and out. Then really long deep breaths through your nose that expand your belly and chest. Exhale through your mouth slowly counting to ten. Do this several times (these are called cleansing breaths in yoga). Then begin silently chanting your prayer word or phrase.
You can allow the silent chanting to simply fade out as your mind calms. If you find your head chattering again return to your prayer word to calm things. Do not chastise yourself if you mind chatters. Do your best not to get frustrated. This is all part of the practice.
Start with five minutes of silence and gradually work up to twenty minutes. If you find yourself having trouble with a longer time then drop back. Like learning to run distances or lift weights we have to build up our prayer muscles slowly. Over time work up to two sessions a day of twenty minutes each. Once again be patient. One session of ten minutes is better than not doing this at all. I expect you will find yourself craving more silence as you feel the benefits of the experience seep into all parts of your life.
This practice can be done alone or in groups. It can be done at home, in a park, or in the church. Experiment with the location, time of day, and partners. If you are having trouble getting in tune with this let me know. We can set up a location for a group to meet or even have sessions via Zoom. I participate in a Zoom contemplative prayer session each week and find it very helpful.
Whatever you do find ways to cultivate silence in your life. You will find it transformative, healing, and you will be drawn closer to the heart of God.