Harrowing Of Hell
August 10, 2014

Transformation in the Silence

Preacher: Diana Bender

In a recent study published in the journal Science, researchers found that people would rather receive an electric shock instead of sitting alone in silence. Even among those who said they would rather pay money than experience a second electric shock, 46% actually shocked themselves a second time—to avoid sitting alone in silence for 15 minutes. I’m thinking these people would not have been happy at my nine day silent retreat in June! But for me, my nine days of silence were a wonderful and transformative experience, and I can’t wait till next year!

Now I have to say that when I first started doing silent retreats (and I started with a three day retreat—a bit less intense) the nearly universal response from my friends and family was, in the kindest way possible, “You? You won’t speak for 3 days?” My dad told me he couldn’t even imagine himself not speaking for more than an hour. It seemed incongruous to them that I, as an extroverted talker, would get something out of an experience of deep and lasting silence. It seemed contrary to my very nature. And yet, after a few 3-day retreats, I really wanted a longer period of time. So, last year I did seven days, this year nine. And next year I’ll do 10, and I think that will be just right. So I began to wonder about my families’ question to me. Why are these retreats so powerful and so compelling for me? What about silence is so inspiring and so helpful in my spiritual journey?

Today’s Gospel sheds some interesting light. Jesus has just fed 5,000 people with some loaves and a couple of fishes, and then he dismisses the crowds and sends the disciples off in the boat. He “goes up to the mountain to pray by himself.” This is one instance where Jesus models praying in seclusion for an extended period several times throughout the gospels. In fact, Jesus actually begins his public ministry with 40 days alone in the wilderness (40 days would be too long for me). In today’s Old Testament reading, after the wind and the earthquake and the fire, Elijah experiences “the sound of sheer silence” in which he can finally hear God. In another story in the gospel of Mark, the disciples return to Jesus after a time apart, and hearing of their ministry, Jesus encourages them to “go away by yourself to a deserted place and rest awhile.” This sounds a bit like Sabbath. We need renewal, but I think it’s also something else.

For me, the silent retreat offers me the chance to let go of everything that distracts me from my relationship with God. It’s kind of like going on vacation with God. The first few days, it’s like the scales are falling from my body, my eyes, and my ears. I have so much chatter in my mind as I let go of all the things that seem so essential when I am at my job or taking care of my family, but which, from a bit of distance or perspective, seem pretty unimportant. I mean, does it really matter if my teenage son Tieran does not walk the dog exactly when I want him to? I think social psychologist and vulnerability expert Brené Brown nailed it when she said, “We stay so busy that the truth of our lives cannot catch up to us.”

I do believe that it’s hard to hear God clearly, to discern God’s call to us in the midst of the noise and busyness and distraction of our everyday lives. Like Elijah, we can’t hear God in the drama of the wind and the earthquake and the fire. It is only in the sheer silence that God’s voice or presence is able to be discerned. Even when God is reaching out to us in that drama, even if we are miraculously able to hear or see it, we can so easily misinterpret it or dismiss it. It may seem too “woo-woo” or “just a coincidence,” we might say.

When we open our hearts and attend to our souls by nurturing them with moments of silence, the Holy Spirit can enter in and incredible things do happen. Sometimes there are even those touchstone moments Doyt referred to when he kicked off this sermon series on caring for our souls. These are touchstone moments where we can almost feel God reaching in, drenching our souls to nourish and restore them.

In the quiet, I feel like I connect with my true essential self and God’s presence feels more palpable, more tangible. I am less likely to fall prey to the insignificant worries or concerns which can dominate my mind all too easily. There are many ways to give ourselves over to God like this, to open ourselves up. For me, it’s these long retreats, but for you maybe it’s meditation, running long distances, painting, yoga, journaling, or long days in the garden. But the key is intention. When our intention in these practices is to give ourselves over to God, we are opening the door to a new possibility for our soul—a new way to build our character, if you will.

Now, language in this Gospel passage is interesting. It says, “He made the disciples get into the boat” in Greek, an alternate meaning for that word “made” is that he forced them. Sometimes it’s hard to carve out the time and space to listen to God, and maybe we do have to do some urgent forcing of situations to honor our spiritual journeys. I can’t get myself into the quiet and deepest space on my own very easily. I need the structure of the silent retreat or the Friday evening Taizé services I attend at St. James or even my morning prayer time to get into that frame. In fact I started down this path with just small bits of silence—a few minutes at the start of the day.

When I do find that structure for myself—force the situation in my life to create the space for this deeper expression of my spirituality—then the challenges of my life are much easier to bear. The pain and the suffering that just comes with regular life are easier to take somehow. It’s like I build a reserve. My silent retreats are not necessarily easy, and maybe sometimes I would prefer an electric shock to the processing and making meaning of the most painful experiences or parts of my life. Tears usually flow as the truths and the realities do catch up to me. Some truths of our lives are hard to bear.

But coming to terms with the painful truths of our lives, while simultaneously bringing to mind a God who loves us so incredibly much, gives us a context that is so helpful in transforming the pain and suffering into self-understanding and maybe even into growth or maturity. The story today of Peter panicking while walking to Jesus on the water reminds us that we have available to us a Jesus who will catch us like he caught Peter the very second Peter called out. We can bear more in the midst of that kind of context—that kind of immediate, present, abundant love. We can face and sort out the difficult realities, the painful histories, the hard relationships, the stressful jobs, and the _____ (you fill in the blank).

Many times it doesn’t feel like the catching of our hand is very effective. Sometimes we don’t feel Jesus or God catching us in the midst of the doctor sharing the diagnosis or the car crash or the lost job. The catching doesn’t go exactly as we would like or imagine sometimes, but later we can usually see that actually there was quite a bit of catching going on.

In my silent retreats, my mind calms and the chatter ceases. After, like with Elijah, the wind and the fire and the earthquakes inside subside, such an amazing peacefulness emerges. It’s like I have been caught in a deep well of calm, a river of great joy. And then the real work can begin. The real dialog about what’s happening with my life starts, and each time it has felt like the deeper meaning or purpose I so long for begins to emerge from the shadows of my pain and denial and avoidance. All the ways I use to avoid suffering can’t be sustained when I am in a silent retreat with nothing to do but be with myself and God. So when I face those things, allow myself to be fully loved by God in the midst of whatever difficulty I am processing, then new possibilities, rooted and growing from the love and compassion of God, begin to flower. New ways of being and thinking and relating to me and to others emerge.

When we bring our intention to give ourselves to God (through whatever practice works—biking or painting or retreats, etc.), when we explore our challenges, and maybe even our failures, with God (in that context of abundant love), a new perspective or a new frame of understanding can emerge about those failures. We can get beyond the surface level of blame or shame to discover something new. Perhaps a new opportunity was waiting for you? Or maybe the failure had a larger purpose; it wasn’t the end of the story. Perhaps what’s been so troubling didn’t have anything to do with you? Take Peter, he probably felt like a failure after panicking and starting to fall into the sea. But think about what a gift this “failure” was to us: showing Jesus’ divinity more fully and clarifying the importance of our faith in our relationship with God.

In silence, in prayer, on pilgrimage, through Sunday worship, in connecting with the deepest reality, not only do we understand ourselves and our lives better, but in connecting with the deepest reality, we are remade, re-birthed, re-formed into a new creation, reformed for new service, transformed to make a bigger difference in the world. Maybe that bigger difference doesn’t look huge and extraordinary, and it doesn’t have to. Maybe it’s being more patient with our children? Maybe it’s being more kind to our spouse? Maybe it’s being more compassionate of our co-workers? Maybe it’s noticing unfairness or injustice and being brave enough to speak up about it or do something about it?

As the needs of the world change, when we surrender ourselves to God, we are shaped and formed to meet that new need that we may not even know about. With our surrender and God’s work, righteousness and peace can indeed kiss each other. With God, in the quiet, in the restoring silence, we gain the strength, the understanding, and new capacity. Alone with our thoughts, our prayers, we emerge nourished and refreshed and strengthened. As a result, we can continue co-creating the kingdom of God here on earth in richer and deeper and more meaningful ways than we ever could possibly imagine.