It was Dallas Willard who said these words:
“In silence we close off our souls from “sounds,” whether those sounds be noise, music, or words…Many people have never experienced silence and do not even know that they do not know what it is.”
Do you know what the Silence is? According to Willard you probably don’t. Read that last sentence again from Willard. “Many people have never experienced silence and do not even know that they do not know what it is.” In other words, a lot of people do not understand what is meant when Contemplatives talk about “silence”.
We might think the phrase is referring simply to being in a quiet area away from cell-phones, internet, TV’s, work, kids, traffic and so on. “It’s just finding a place where I can relax and concentrate on God and His Word without interruption, right?”
No. When it comes to Contemplative Spirituality, there is a difference between getting some peace and quiet and going into “the Silence”. There is outward silence in a nice, relaxing, quiet environment. But, then there is the silence that Contemplatives are talking about: inner silence. Silence of the soul. Like me, you most likely didn’t know about that second one. And that is Willard’s point – “[many people] do not even know that they do not know what it is”.
The Silence he is referring to is a mystical experience. It is a state of mind you achieve through some technique or spiritual discipline. By far the most common of which is centering prayer. Centering prayer is where a “sacred word” is repeated over and over in order to go inside one’s self to connect with God. It is the point where a person reaches a state of “non-thought”. It is not simply “relaxing” and ‘slowing down” to de-stress. It is an intentional effort to “go beyond thinking”, to shift one’s consciousness in order to enter into an altered state where there is NO thinking at all.
It’s described by New Agers as being awake while your mind is asleep. It is the same thing on both sides of the globe. “Shifting” one’s “consciousness” is not language used in the West by Christians. Instead we hear “Presence,” or “Silence” or “Stillness” or “Slowing Down” to describe this mystical experience. That’s the kind of language more acceptable to our Christian ears (and appealing to our hectic lives). Yet, while the language is different the experience and the techniques are the same in our hemisphere as in the other. A sampling of quotes will help illustrate the point here:
“In the work of contemplation, then, we call in our ‘scattered faculties by a deliberate exercise of the will’ and empty our mind of its ‘swarm of images,’ its ‘riot of thought,’ and ‘sink into that blank abiding place where busy, clever Reason cannot come.'” (What is Contemplation? By Avery Brookes, essay. Weavings. Volume VII, number 4, July/August, 1992, pg. 9-10)
“Oral prayer gives way to contemplative prayer, in which the heart opens itself in silence before God.(Evdokimov, Paul. Ages of the Spiritual Life, pg. 196, emphasis original)
“These [contemplative spaces in between our thoughts] show themselves when we are able to rest our mind’s constant attempt to secure us through its grasping for definition and understanding and instead simply appreciate the open spaces between our thoughts as being full of God.” (Living the Day from the Heart. By Tilden Edwards Jr., essay. Weavings, volume VII, number 4, July/August 1992, pg. 37)
“The quiet repetition of a single word can help us to descend with the mind into the heart. This way of simple prayer …opens us to God’s active presence…It is to this silence that we are called. (Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, pg. 41, 66) Henri Nouwen was a Catholic Monk. In a survey of more than 3400 Protestant church leaders he was found to be the 2nd most influential person behind only Billy Graham (Michael Ford, Wounded Prophet: A Portrait of Henri J.M. Nouwen, p. 35). His influence is far beyond the bounds of Roman Catholicism.
“[I]f we are not still before Him [God], we will never truly know to the depths of the marrow of our bones that He is God. There’s got to be a stillness.”—Beth Moore, Be Still DVD, a video promoting Centering Prayer and the Silence.
“The writer [referring to the anonymous writer of a medieval book called, The Cloud of Unknowing] informs us that any thought in the mind separates us from God, because thought sheds light on its object…We are advised to go into a ‘cloud of forgetting’ about anything other than the silence of the inner world…the restful awareness response, which contains no thoughts,is being advocated” (Deepak Chopra, How to Know God, pg. 94-95)
Did you notice that last one? Deepak Chopra is a very popular New Age leader. He is in no way a Christian. Yet, his description and pursuit of the silence is the same as the Christian version. You have to shut your mind off and stop thinking to enter into the Presence of God.
Read those quotes a couple more times. Let them sink in. You may not know them but many well known names in Evangelical Christianity know them. And quote them. And learn Contemplative Spirituality from them. The points made here are the same from one contemplative writer to the next: it’s all about getting into the “Silence”, or, the “Presence” of God.
Next up: More on the silence and then the techniques to get there.