24. Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

In the early chapters of this book you reflected on how everything looks different when you know how to see God in the world around you and in your own life. But this way of seeing needs to be practiced.

In a diffuse way, we can be aware of God’s presence all the time. But we need occasionally to become aware of God’s presence in a more focused way. Two people in love are continually aware of, and quietly enjoy, each other’s company. Their love does not have to be intense all the time. But their presence to each other does need to be more focused, more direct, and more intense some of the time. Otherwise they slip into taking each other for granted.

We all have special moments in our relationship with God. Knowing we are in God’s presence can affect us as it affected Moses when he felt the need to take off his shoes. He knew he was standing on “holy ground” - a metaphor for moments of greater awareness. At such times we have a sense of being personally loved because it is our own self that is in God’s presence.

The point is not how you feel at such times. You might feel nothing! It is a matter of simply knowing that you are in God’s presence - even if you feel nothing. When you are aware of being in God’s presence, whatever happens next is prayer. It might be an expression of joy or thanksgiving or trust. It might be in words or song or silence. There is every chance you will feel lost for words. It doesn’t matter: your whole being is responding to God’s presence. You can, in the words of the Christian hymn, “Let all mortal flesh keep silence.”

It works the other way as well: when you are surrounded by silence and stillness, you more easily become aware of God’s presence. Creating such times is essential for the coming alive that results from “seeing” God.

The frenetic activity of modern life with all its pressure makes it indispensable that Christians seek prayerful silence and contemplation, both as a condition for, and expression of, a vibrant faith.
(Pope John Paul II, Letter to the Church in Oceania)

When you are aware of being in God's presence, whatever happens next is prayer.

All sorts of things can prevent you from finding silence and stillness in your life. Advertisements constantly bombard your space and compete for your attention. The struggles and pressures of daily life can leave you with no time or energy for it. Anxiety, pain, and suffering can smother your efforts to think or to pray. People can be “dumbed down” by a constant diet of headlines, images, and sound-bites. It’s like eating crackers all day instead of a balanced meal. In fact, it is worse, because it is one’s deepest self that is being undernourished. It is even in the interests of some people to prevent others from taking the time to think beyond their immediate needs and experience. Consider, for example, the phrase “just do it,” which implies “don’t think.”

Through the lack of opportunities for silence and stillness, we are deprived of opportunities to come alive to who we really are. There is more to our being than just doing, achieving, and having:

In the course of their journey he came to a village, and a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. She had a sister called Mary, who sat down at the Lord’s feet and listened to him speaking. Now Martha, who was distracted with all the serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do the serving all by myself? Please tell her to help me.” But the Lord answered, “Martha, Martha,” he said, “you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part, and it is not to be taken from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)

The stillness we need can be found in many ways. Nature itself provides times and places that evoke wonder. The stillness inside an empty church can work powerfully upon us. Sometimes it is a matter of remembering, not in order to cling or to stay in the past, but to see God’s fingerprints in our lives, even before we understood:

Such are the feelings with which people often look back on their childhood, when some incident brings it vividly before them. Some relic or token of that early time, some spot, or some book, or a word, or a scent, or a sound, brings them back in memory to the first years of their discipleship, and then they see what they could not know at the time, that God’s presence went with them and gave them rest. Even now perhaps they are unable to discern fully what it was which made that time so bright and glorious. They are full of tender, affectionate thoughts towards those first years, but they do not know why. They think it is those very years which they yearn after, whereas it is the presence of God which, as they now see, was then over them, which attracts them.
(John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. IV)

A Christian custom encourages us to spend a few moments of prayer at both ends of the day, upon rising in the morning and before going to bed at night. Kneeling down can make this prayer a more focused experience. Even if we don’t know what to say, our body’s posture acknowledges God.

At noon Christian tradition invites us to stand in awe of the incarnation, God’s coming into our world in the person of Jesus Christ. This event is often recalled with the prayer known as the Angelus. We are amazed that God would come into our lives in this way, and amazed at how much we mean to God. We discover ourselves when we lose ourselves in this mystery.

For Practice

  • Try praying with your whole self, mind, body, and spirit. One way is to find a quiet place where you can lie flat on your face in God’s presence. Let yourself be lost for words, and let your posture speak for you.
  • In a quiet place, preferably a favorite spot, experience being the only person in the world and in the whole of human history, who is you.

For Prayer

My soul is longing and yearning,
is yearning for the courts of the Lord.
My heart and my soul ring out their joy
to God, the living God.

The sparrow herself finds a home
and the swallow a nest for her brood;
she lays her young by your altars.
They are happy who dwell in your house ...
as they go through the Bitter Valley
they make it a place of springs.

Psalm 84:2-4, 6