Into the Silence

You can read today’s scripture by clicking here.

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Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

Today’s image on the bulletin is from a mid-20th century American painter named Edward Hopper.  It’s his most famous work and is one of the best known paintings in all of American art.  It’s not really a seasonal painting but I think it reflects some important themes of Advent – space, light, simplicity, and quiet.

This image is that of an all-night diner in New York City where 4 people have

EHopper Nighthawks C

Nighthawks, Edward Hopper (1942)

congregated.  The scene has a quiet feel. There is no action implied except that of the waiter.  The dark street is motionless even as the artificial light spills out onto the dark sidewalk around it.  The colors are muted and the shadows long. The people don’t appear to be talking to one another.  There are empty stools at the counter, just waiting to be filled. This feeling of quiet is echoed in the large empty space.  The lines are straight and shapes are simple and clean.  There is minimal decoration, even in the closed shops across the street.  And even if there was any noise in the diner, we wouldn’t be able to hear it, as we are standing on the other side of the glass, looking in on this small congregation.

 

The whole image seems to be one of waiting and watching.  The space waits for movement to fill it because it is motionless itself.  The people, the nighthawks, watching for something new to cross their paths, something that will stir them into motion in the middle of the night.

So many people read this painting and think it looks lonely and depressing.  And I wonder, what is it about space and silence that unnerves us so that we want to fill it?  What are we afraid of?  What do we want instead?

It’s like one of those sleepless nights where we can’t seem to get our mind to shut off.  It’s almost as if the silence is so unbearable that we will fill it, even with the most disturbing thoughts.

Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

I once led a meditation workshop during which a group of about 15 people experimented with different types of meditation.  Each experiment was met with curiosity, except for silence.  When it came time for us to try silent mediation, the people became agitated, even as I spoke about it.  And when I suggested we sit in silence for 12 minutes, one participant, who had been previously still and silent, burst into nervous rambling and began shaking.

And it’s not just silence, it’s the quietness of prayer in general.  I always catch myself thinking all kinds of thoughts – wondering why someone said something or did something.  Wondering how I should respond or fix… or what I need to remember.  It’s as if I think that my thoughts are the most important thing.

And before we dismiss the importance of cultivating silence in our lives, let me ask you this:  From where else but silence do you hear anything besides your own thoughts?

Our minds are so filled with television and radio and smartphones and videogames and to-do lists and gossip and griping and anxiety and thought after thought after thought… sometimes layers of thought that we aren’t even aware of… how on earth do we ever hear God’s voice in the cacophony?

Mark’s Gospel is calling us to “Keep awake.”  And I can think of no more important time for us to be listening for God than now.  There is a great unveiling happening in the world and some days it feels as if everything is falling apart.  We are lost.  And there is no worldly messiah who will come.  Indeed, the real danger is in wanting for one to come and fix everything.

Because our salvation lies in God, in listening to God for guidance, and in taking action that is loving and compassionate, just and merciful.

Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

Today’s Gospel passage uses the trope of the householder going on a journey and leaving his servants in charge to watch after things.  We’ve seen this before in a parable – two weeks ago.  It’s woven into all the Gospels and is used in other mystical traditions.

The householder that goes on a journey is a metaphor for us getting lost.  Getting lost in our own stories and needs and wants.  In our beliefs and fears and desires – things we want from the world and how we might go about getting it or why we didn’t get it and who’s to blame.  Getting so lost that we forget how to be quiet enough to listen for God, how to pay attention enough to watch for God.

My own journey of lostness wasn’t that much different from others.  I somehow arrived in young adulthood and, of course, had some picture of what my life was supposed to be like.  I got pretty close to it but, it turned out that I had just borrowed someone else’s picture.  I wasn’t happy and I didn’t know what to do about it.

So, I ate, and I withdrew from my friends, and I hoped that things would just get better on their own because that’s the coping mechanism I knew.  After 7 years of living like that I knew I needed to make a change in order to save my own life.

I moved to another city, joined the YMCA, and started a gratitude journal.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I had just started my spiritual path.  However, the moment that really awakened me was my first retreat.  At one point, I got so scared that I ran out of the room and into the woods until I couldn’t run anymore.

PyramidMountainTentacles1But a few days later, at the end of that retreat, I had cultivated enough silence that the fog of my own self-judgment and criticism momentarily parted.  An enormous space opened up inside of me, all the thoughts disappeared, and what took their place was this overwhelming sense of Love.  It was as if light was had filled me up and was shining out of me.  I couldn’t speak.  All I could do was cry, I was so filled with gratitude.

Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

And after that, I wandered again, as we always do.  I found new ways to criticize myself and met new people to try and get approval from.  And I still work at these things every day.  And when I have the most trouble with anxiety, that’s usually when I recognize that I’m not giving myself enough silence.  Or rather, I’m not giving God enough space.

Because the Good News is that God is there in the silence.  We think we have to wait on God, but God is always there waiting on us.  We think God has hidden Godself from us, but it is us who have hidden ourselves from God… in all the expectations and judgments and fears and anxieties and blame.  God is just waiting for us to awaken from our own trance.

This is the hope of the season – that God remains.  In all our comings and goings, we can always return to God.  Always.  God the Master of the house, who comes at the most unexpected hour, in the most unexpected way, God is there to meet us when we simply find a way into a silent place.

It will feel like the world is ending because, in a way, it does.  For a time.

This time of Advent is a time of cultivating the space in which we can hear God speak.  A time of preparing the manger.  We cease from our wanderings and find our way back to our origin, the place of our birth.  Where we find God’s Hope, not in the ways of the world, but in our tenderest, most vulnerable self, our real self.

This is where we come on bended knee.

Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

About Michelle Meech

I want to unfold. I do not want to remain folded up anywhere, because wherever I am still folded, I am untrue. -Rainer Maria Rilke
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