One perennial question for the disciples of Jesus who have experienced grace through moments of silence is: how do we cultivate interior silence in the midst of the hustle and bustle of our often noisy lives, especially with so many distractions, even at our fingertips (i.e. cellphones)? How do we abide in the peace of Christ when we can be bogged down by the rightful needs and demands of our world in need, and where we’re more aware of difficult realities across the globe? In a world in which we are more and more connected by social media, we find ourselves closing off possibilities for moments of silence and stillness.
If you do not already have a regular time in your daily schedule for prayerful silence, you might start by looking at your schedule and carving some time you can commit to on a daily basis. Begin with a short time, like five to ten minutes. Put your phone and computer away during this time. The silence and stillness might be uncomfortable at the beginning, and you might find that there are so many other things that need to be done right then, but stick to your allotted daily time for silence. Those pressing needs can wait five or ten minutes. Allow the initial discomfort to be with you. Being still is not easy. All of a sudden the urge to fidget might come. Resist it. Just for the time you are giving yourself, commit to silence. Remember that you are in the presence of God, without actively using your imagination. Christ is always present to us, and yet how quickly we drift away from the awareness. That’s OK. Simply and gently return to the remembrance of God, yet there is no need to use your mind or imagination, just use practice your faith. Stillness in our body as just as we are before God will allow us to pay better attention to ourselves as embodied creatures.
The more you are faithful to a regular time of sitting in the awareness of the presence of God, entering into silence will be like entering into a large body of water. At the beginning you might just stand by the shore. Go within rather than the thoughts and emotions that call you outside yourself. Augustine writes, “Do not spill over yourself; enter within yourself, because in the inner self lies the truth; and if you find that your nature is changing, transcend yourself” (On True Religion, 39, 72). In time you will gain some distance between your emotions and yourself, and between your thoughts and yourself. You will begin to hear your thoughts and feel your emotions with growing self-awareness of a depth that transcends them.
As you transcend your thoughts and feelings, you will begin to have more space within yourself to respond rather than to react to situations that incite thoughts and feelings. If you have been in a professional or family role that calls you to continually tend to others, you might especially benefit from an ongoing periods of solitude and silence to accept yourself with all your limitations. Even what you ignore of yourself God will allow you to know in time: “I confess then what I know of myself; I will confess also what I ignore, because what I know of myself I know it because you enlighten me, and what I ignore of myself I will know once my darkness will become like daylight in your presence (Confessions X.5.7).
As you become more constant and the time of daily silence becomes a part of your life there might be times when a sense of unease with yourself may require further exploration. The work of transcending oneself takes patience, diligence, and gentleness. Do not force answers to difficult questions that may come up, but let the answers arise on their own. Simply notice your thoughts, your feelings, and your body with gratitude for being always in the presence of God. For as Augustine writes, “God is more intimate to me than I am to myself” (Confessions III.6.11)
As you keep showing up to these moments of silence and stillness, even outside of this time, when you are engaged in activity, you might recognize certain thinking patterns more easily or you might see emotions arising within you rather than possessing you in sudden ways. A contemplative attitude will be permeating to other parts of your day like water being absorbed by a cloth or dry soil.
You might come to the experience that silence is not the absence of thoughts and emotions, but the way to know your inner landscape beyond thoughts and emotions. You will begin to know yourself as more spacious than you knew yourself to be. We are not an illusion as Buddhists say, and we’re not the center of reality either. God is more real. In time you will even be at home in your own being in silence and solitude, and then in activity as well. What a gift! Receiving yourself as this gift will allow you to receive with more depth an infinitely greater gift: the gift of being loved while doing absolutely nothing. This experienced love might help you share your gifts with our suffering world in a more conscious way.