The Face of Christ
By Marian Scheele
O earth, so full of dreary noises'
0 men, with wailing
in your voices!
Under all speech that is good for
anything there lies a silence
that is better.
Silence is deep as eternity;
speech is shallow as time.
Be silent before the Lord, all mankind.
"S0 FULL OF dreary noises" indeed! If Browning could have foreseen the world today, he no doubt would decide that he lived in a paradise of silence. Noise, and speed, and furious activity abound in these last days so that the hearts of all are weary with the weight of this enormous pressure.
In a mind-boggling exchange on a recent television panel, the new telephone technologies were being discussed. Some of the more astute debaters--those who had not lost their bearings on the dizzying highway of exigent speed-protested that the new possibilities for speedier communication were not worth the concomitant loss of privacy that would be inevitable. But the CEO of a telephonic communication company insisted that loss of privacy was not worth considering when (oh, marvel!) here before our eyes lay the possibility of getting information more quickly, with the new technology his company was making available. Who could seriously question such an exciting concept?
Sad to say, hardly anyone would dare. The sound and fury that demand ever speedier communication are too loud and ubiquitous. There is no time for silently questioning the need to do everything with alacrity. The world, of course, has lost its way, and the dizzying freeway to nowhere on which it is traveling does not allow for any offramps for solitude. Even when people are gratuitously afforded a bit of space for reflection--a taste of stillness--they hasten to fill it with noise, lest someone catch them ruminating. There may be time for us to recharge the batteries of the mind--which are running on empty--on our drive homeward, but it is easier to push a button and fill the silence with music or news reports, thereby obviating any chance for assessing the day--or one's place in the universe.
This is a society that does not examine itself; there is no time for such a luxury. Only little children seem to have it right. They know the necessity of doing nothing. Some years ago, Robert P. Smith wrote a book with the title, Where Did You Go? "Out." What did you do? "Nothing." Every parent has had this conversation with a child.
Children know instinctively that dreaming, meditating, doing nothing, are absolutely vital for getting in touch with reality. But of course teachers and parents knock that silly notion out of their heads-and the sooner the better.
Alan Watts gave a lecture once, illustrating with a few words how quickly this can be accomplished. He told how a small child comes to school, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, eager to learn. Then the teacher says,
"Pay attention!" And Watts pantomimed how the child's body stiffens with the enormous effort to follow this command, and his eyes glaze over as he strains to conform. From now on, he will not be allowed to dream and question; he will lose forever the joy of learning with which he came into this world.
This happens to all of us, and it affects our walk with God. The modern pursuit of knowledge without understanding has resulted in a great irony: the only light from the huge explosion of technology is one that clarifies the fact that we, as a society, and as a Church, are bereft of inner illumination, and therefore unable to solve our problems. But God, as Joseph told his brothers, means it for good. Out of a terrible hunger and need, many will seek God, and hopefully will find Him in silent contemplation.
The churches today are largely characterized by a prevailing need to be busy and useful. We need to be "useful" of course, but this pragmatism must come out of mysticism. In other words, before any work of God can be truly "useful" it must have originated with Him, coming out of deep acknowledgment that we don't know what to do, and a determination to follow the leading of the Spirit. This is something that we will never do perfectly, but it is something we cannot do at all unless we have come to know Christ as our very life. The inner place where He dwells is known only to Him; it is hidden even from ourselves, and so we must listen with an inward ear in a silent "unknowing."
Today, especially, I think it is not easy for any of us to practice silent contemplation, where we come alone and wordless-into the presence of Christ, waiting there for the Mystery to be made known to us. But God has allowed this difficulty and planned from eternity to do for us what we find impossible. He knew that the world would be so much with us, so much a reality to us, that He instructed Paul to write:
By our faith the Holy Spirit helps us with our daily problems, and in our praying. For we don't even know what we should pray for, nor how to pray as we should, but the Holy Spirit prays for us with such feeling that it cannot be expressed in words. Romans 8:26
In contemplative prayer, that is what we do: look to the Holy Spirit to do that which we cannot do for ourselves. And we contemplate His glory, and His mercy, and His ways that are past finding out. It is not given to us to unravel the mystery; we need only believe. What a sublime relief it is to agree with Him, and to know that He does not expect us to know anything. In silent contemplation, the intellect is bypassed, and we are taken into a transcendent dimension understood only by the spirit. In silence, our spirit will recognize His Spirit.
As we open ourselves to timelessness, we will become aware that everything we want to know is hidden in "the cloud of unknowing." We have imagined that we are full of knowledge; now we see that we know nothing. But this is not a sad enlightenment: it is the door to knowing--the way to the heart of the Father, in which everything of love and kindness, of patience and wisdom, abide. It is the place where all that is in the Father will flow into our nothingness. This would not be possible had we still clung to our own knowing, being full of ourselves and the sound of our own voices. This knowing is from the Holy Spirit and will always be perfect, even though we may receive it imperfectly.
When the soul is occupied with looking away from present trials into the face of Christ, and making this a regular and passionate occupation, this soul will become more tranquil and still, and therefore more able to reflect the Being it adores.
This reflected glory (all of Him, none of our own) will enable us to love our neighbor as ourselves. We have asked, "How can I love this person who is so unlovable? I have tried so many times and failed." The truth is that we were never intended to have this ability; it only flows from the Vine into the branch. How happily we find that there is a way to become ever more firmly attached to the Vine--a way that is more delightful than we could have imagined. The only effort required is giving up all effort.
It is in this giving up that I find the freedom that has eluded me. When I give up my own knowing and wait in silence for His voice, I find the Truth in the deepest regions of my consciousness. And suddenly I can say, "So that is what Jesus meant when He said that the truth would make me free!" For freedom to have any meaning, I must have been enslaved to something, and now I see that I was bound by my own effort, and every move I made to free myself only tightened the cords that held me fast.
To experience this freedom in the Spirit, we must come daily to eat and drink with Him, learning to know and understand His voice. A skilled craftsman, who has spent years learning his trade, can do with great ease what most of us would find impossible. He makes it look easy, and we think, "Why can't I do the same thing?" And, indeed, it is easy for him, but only because he has dedicated his life to this one discipline. When we look at him, we do not see the sacrifices he has made, the pleasures he has given up, the time he has spent alone learning his art. And all of this for something temporal. How infinitely greater is the reward of a dedication and passion for the things of God.
As we obey the call, we discover that it is God Himself who not only invites us into the place of infinite delight, but has sent the Holy Spirit to make everything possible. Taking His hand, we walk with Him into the vast, silent regions of the heavens, and our speech is hushed because we realize that we have nothing to say. Job spoke many words of wisdom in his conversation with his friends, but when he saw God, there was an enormous silence.
It is an awesome thing to come into the presence of the living God. But, incredibly, this place of holiness is surprisingly familiar. Somehow, we feel that we have come home. Our nothingness is not a thing to be ashamed of. In our eager, childlike searching, we have come to a place where we are welcomed, forgiven, tenderly comforted. Someone is saying, "Come in! I have been waiting for you!"
Our prayers of intercession, our petitions, our expressions of thankfulness and praise-all of these are good and not to be neglected. But how much we miss when we do not go apart to be silent, leaving the world and our work and our earthly concerns, sinking down into that deep place where our Father is waiting to bless His beloved child.
This is not an esoteric practice, available to a privileged few. Our Father calls everyone to "come to the waters ... come buy and eat," especially "you who have no money," who are simply hungry and thirsty, and unutterably weary of the busyness that deprives you of knowing, deeply and truly, the rest that is easy and the burden that is light. As Phillips Brooks said:
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!
Marian Scheele, who is in her 80th year, lives with her daughter in Modesto, California. A widow, she has four children, eleven grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. Marian enjoys gardening, cooking, reading and writing.