I say all this because a few weeks ago during CPE, I went with a Roman Catholic friend to what is called Eucharistic Adoration. (Note to the Protestants reading this: take a deep breath.) I wanted to see what it was all about, and so I asked if I could tag along. As we walked to the chapel, my friend explained that the "host" would be in a "monstrance" on the altar, and that this was really just an opportunity to be in the presence of Christ and to pray. I know I kept asking him, "That's it?", and I'm sure I was looking at him like he was crazy. That is because what I was really thinking was, "So you sit in a room and pray. In front of a communion wafer. In a gold box/holder thingy on the altar. What is the point of this?" (As I said here, my Protestant heart still beats within.) But I went, and I'm really glad I did. We were there about 15 minutes or so, and the time just flew by. Afterwards, my friend asked if I felt like it was "idol worship", and I immediately responded that no, I didn't. (Probably with kind of an attitude, like, why would I think that?)
As I pondered it more over the next few days, I realized that the reason he had asked me that, and why I might potentially feel that way, is because I was supposed to recognize that the "communion wafer in a gold box" was the body of Christ (transsubstantiation and all that). Hmm...As I said, my Protestant heart....but it goes beyond that. I realized that, had I thought about it from that perspective and allowed myself to just focus solely on that aspect of the experience, I might very well have felt like I was engaging in idol worship. But I never got that far. Because inside the chapel was complete and total silence. I had been told that I was just supposed to pray, and so pray I did. Believe me, I had plenty to pray about that day. And the longer I sat and kneeled there, the more I found to pray about. And nothing, nobody, interrupted me.
It's been so long since I've done the silence thing that I forgot how important it was, and I've been "pondering this in my heart" ever since.
During my first year of seminary (a very spiritually tumultuous time for me), there were a few times where I literally prayed, "God, I can't hear you above everything else, I just need it to be quiet!" And when I realized that, I would go to the Cathedral in town in the middle of a weekday afternoon, just so I could be in a place that was silent. When I was working in politics, there was one day in particular that I remember just being at the end of my rope. I literally had no idea how I was going to get through the next hour, let alone the next couple of months until the election. I was driving around western Iowa doing...I don't know, probably scoping out barn sign locations or something...when I suddenly remembered the retreat center that my college owns in that part of the state. And I stopped, turned the car around, and headed right there. I walked in the office and explained to the woman at the desk that I was a Creighton alum, and that I really needed some down time, and could I please just go in the chapel for a while (I had no idea what might be going on in there - a retreat, a planned service, etc.). Her immediate response? "Of course, that's what it's there for." I grabbed my Bible out of my car, went in, sat down in a chair, and read, prayed, and cried for probably close to an hour.
The thing I've noticed about silence is, unless you're completely ready to collapse (like I was that day in Iowa), the immediate reaction is to be fidgety. Like I said above, you want to turn on the TV or call someone or poke the person next to you. You're thinking about how quiet it is, and how the quiet itself is distracting. And that the lady in front of you has weird perfume. And you wonder if the guy next to you notices that too. And it turns out that the guy next to you is wearing a Beatles t-shirt, which makes you think of the song, "Hey Jude" and you wonder if you've ever actually read the book of Jude, and while you think that you probably have, you can't really remember what it said, and you wonder if that makes you a bad Christian. Which reminds you of the fact that you really hate The Chronicles of Narnia, which obviously qualifies you for Worst Christian of the Century. And so on. And as I contemplate my past experiences with silence-for-silence's sake, or for God's sake, or however you want to think about it, I realize that they have been a lot of that.
But I remember retreats in college, being at the Cathedral here, this recent experience at Eucharistic Adoration, even times just in my own house or dorm room where I really just tried to be quiet and pray, and I remember that eventually that goes away. I think it's natural, especially for those of us who don't "do" silence very well or very often, to struggle to get into it. I think it's okay to let your mind wander a little bit, but to be praying in the background, "God, settle my brain. Focus my mind on you. Show me what you want me to pray." And eventually, He will.
So, back around to the Protestant question. Why are we Protestants so bad at silence? Why don't we do it more often? Why does the pastor always say, "And now we're going to have a time of silent prayer....while so-and-so plays the piano"? Why is it that Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are just about the only times it's completely quiet in church? (And even that depends on the pastor and the congregation and how those days are observed.) The thing with taking 30 seconds during corporate confession, or a minute after the sermon, is not that God can't work in very brief moments of time - He can, and He does - but that it doesn't give you enough time to let that mind-wandering stuff stop, at least usually not for me. Here's what I'm usually thinking: "I should be confessing something right now. Let me think of something. Ok, I'm kind of irritated at those people who showed up late and made me move over, and now I'm not sitting where I want to. God, make me be a nicer person. But really, they should have the good manners to get here on time.." Or: "Huh, good sermon. Probably not the direction I would have gone, but that's okay. Even though the pastor's stole was off-center, which made it kind of hard to focus. It's a nice stole, though. Very classy. I wonder who makes those things. Do you buy them somewhere? I bet he got it as a gift..." And before you know it, you hear, "And now we will all sing hymn number ____."
Is it because we think it's "too Catholic"? That would be sad, because I'm pretty sure that silent prayer is not one of the things Martin Luther was in disagreement with Rome about. (Entirely-silent-for-the-rest-of-your-life religious orders, perhaps, but not silence as a tool for quieting the heart and mind and listening to God.) Also, I'm pretty sure there is a lot of Biblical justification for silence.
Like Brian in Clintonville, I've been asking a lot of "what if" questions this summer, and apparently this is next in the series. What if, as Protestants, we tried to re-cultivate a practice of silence? After all, Ecclesiastes reminds that there is "a time to be silent and a time to speak." What if we took seriously what the Lord says to Habakkuk, "But the Lord is in his holy temple, let all the earth be silent before him"? What if in our busy, hurried, overscheduled, overcommitted days, we remembered the prophet Isaiah, who tells us, "This is what the sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel says, 'In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength,'"? What if when our world is falling apart around us, we took the time to just be still and know that He is God?
What if as leaders in the church, we took the time to teach our parishoners - hmm...even to teach ourselves - the value of silence?