Coming to Our Right Minds: An Invitation to Silence

by | Jun 23, 2019

He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 
1 Kings 19:1-15

Jesus and his disciples arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me” — for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
Luke 8:26-39

The late Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, canonized by Pope Francis in October of last year, was assassinated in 1980 at the height of his country’s civil war. He is widely believed to have said to the priests under his charge, “Your life may be the only gospel that the people will ever know.” 

I’m fairly certain what he meant is that when working among the subsistence farmers of the Salvadoran countryside, many who were illiterate, it wasn’t enough for priests to preach Jesus’ message. They needed to embody it, pattern their lives on Jesus, so that those who might never read about him could experience something of his love through them. St. Paul said something his letter to the Philippians: “Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” (Philippians 1:27) It’s a good way to think about the promises adults make–parents and godparents–in ceremonies of infant baptism. We promise to live in such a way that the children we raise will come to understand what it means to follow Jesus. Surely that is the charge for all Christians everywhere. 

In my experience, however, the patterning of my life on the gospel of Jesus is as much of a revelation for me as for anyone around me. I don’t mean this abstractly, but in the most concrete terms. From time to time, a gospel story shifts from being a teaching that I’ve read and know in my mind to something else entirely. It somehow takes up residence inside me and becomes for a season–sometimes for years–a  lens through which I see my life and through which I experience God. It becomes the gospel of my life. 

Being spoken to by God through a biblical text is a classic spiritual experience. It’s not unique to Christians, and it can happen to us with other texts besides the Bible. But this experience of feeling one’s life somehow addressed in this way is the most important reason for those of us who wish to follow Jesus to have a regular practice of engaging Scripture. It’s not simply to gain knowledge of the Christian story, as important as that is, but in order to allow the stories and teachings of Jesus to become vehicles of our transformation. What changes is rarely a dramatic rearranging of our life’s circumstances, although that can happen. Consistent with how Jesus lived and taught, the life transformation through a steady engagement with the written and spoken word is most often an internal experience of being given new eyes and ears with which to see and hear what’s around us. A story, an image, a metaphor from his life, can give us precisely what we need at a particular moment to live our imperfect and wondrous lives with courage and even joy.

Here’s an example from my own life with a story that you will hear in church if you happen to show up on July 20. It’s the story of two sisters, Martha and Mary. Along with their brother Lazarus, Martha and Mary were among Jesus’ closest friends. Their home was his refuge, a place where he was always welcome. On one occasion, Jesus arrived, and as was the custom, he went into the common room where men gathered for conversation while the women prepared a meal. Mary joined the men–a bold thing for a woman to do in that culture, while Martha busied herself in the kitchen. You may remember that Martha began to resent her sister for sitting at Jesus’ feet while she toiled alone. Martha complained to Jesus, and asked him to compel Mary to assist her. But do you remember what Jesus said? “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42) 

Several years ago, I spent the better part of a summer with Jesus’ words to Martha as my spiritual touchstone, only Jesus was speaking to me: “Mariann, you are worried and distracted by many things.” No argument there. “There is need of only one thing.” Every day I would repeat those words like a mantra: “There is need of only one thing,” and ask, “What is the one thing needed today?” It was a remarkably cleansing question. 

What I discovered was that each day’s answer was a bit different. One day the answer was honesty, a deep, no-nonsense honesty about who I was and what I felt and how things affected me. Another day, the answer was forgiveness, my capacity to forgive, the people who had hurt me and myself for the wrongs I’ve done. Another day, the answer was to be fully present to my family. On another, the answer was to see the work I had begun to completion. Still another–it was summer, after all, the one thing needed was rest. On some days, of course, many things were needed, not just one, but I then tried my best to put those needs in their proper order–most important first, allowing other cares and occupations to fall into line. 

I offer you that question as a good one to ask as the beginning of the summer, as well as the larger notion of living under a gospel imperative. Carl Jung once told a patient that a good rule of thumb when trying to make decisions is to tend to the next, most necessary thing. If you do that, he said, the Spirit will guide your path.  

Now I confess that the rather strange story we have before us this morning isn’t one of the more readily accessible texts for this kind of spiritual meditation. On the surface, it seems to be a story of severe mental illness, which our forebears understandably interpreted as demonic possession. The man seemingly possessed wore no clothes, refused to live inside, and he heard so many voices in his head that it was as if an army of soldiers were living inside him. I’m not sure what to make of the herd of swine that were driven off the cliff. 

But here is the part that spoke to me: as a result of his encounter with Jesus, the tormented man was returned to his right mind. In other words, “he came to himself,” which is exactly how Jesus describes what happened to the younger brother in his story of the Prodigal Son (just a few chapters ahead). In that story, you recall, a young man loses himself in wild living, having his persuaded his father to bankroll his freely chosen insanity. His self-destructive behavior eventually lands him penniless in a foreign land where he must hire himself out to a farmer in order to survive. It was as he fed the farmer’s pigs, and envied the pigs their food, that he “came to himself.” Restored to his right mind, he returned home to ask his father’s forgiveness. 

So this week, I’ve been reflecting on the all too familiar experience of losing myself, and having a lot of competing voices in my head. “Most of us live our lives caught in a whirlwind of stories going on in our heads,” writes the Augustinian monk Martin Laird in a guidebook he wrote on the Christian practice of contemplation, “like some wild cocktail party of which we find ourselves the embarrassed host. Often, we’re not even aware of how utterly dominating this inner noise is until we attempt to leave it through the doorway of silence.” (Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land: A Guidebook on the Christian Practice of Contemplation (Oxford Press, 2006).)

Where can any of us go to find ourselves again, to be open to the presence of God that can put us in our right mind, allow the murky waters of our soul to settle and receive whatever bits of clarity might come?

It can happen anywhere–on a walk, in your car, doing laundry, cooking dinner, or when you refuse to cook because the one thing needed is elsewhere. The common denominator in the setting for that kind of clarifying experience, however, is silence. Most of us don’t have a lot of silence in our lives these days, often by our own choosing. If that’s true for you, I wonder if you might consider the spiritual practice of sitting in silence, if only for 10 minutes, everyday. It’s not that God doesn’t speak to us in the whirlwind of our lives. What’s easily lost if we don’t practice keeping silence is our capacity to sift through those many voices, or still them completely.

That was the prophet Elijah’s experience, as we heard earlier. There was a great wind, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” What, indeed. What are you doing here and what am I–not here in church at this moment, but here in our lives? In silence we can ponder such questions and hear a different kind of voice speak. Martin Laird again: “It is your noisy chaotic mind keeps us ignorant of the deeper reality of God as the ground of your being.”

Jesus offers us a way to leave the cocktail party and experience a truer sense of ourselves, and of God as the source of life, freedom, and love. That way requires of us nothing more–and nothing less–than a bit of silence and sufficient attentiveness to go beneath the noise to the place where we can, like the healed man or the Prodigal Son, come to ourselves, be in our right mind, the place where clarity emerges and wisdom speaks.

So find some place, if you can, to practice silence every day. It needn’t be long. You don’t have to sit still, although that can be helpful. You can walk, be in your car, linger a bit longer in bed before getting up. It can be when you take a shower. The important thing is intentionality and persistence even when your time of so-called silence is filled with distraction. If you add to that silence a bit of Scripture reading–not a lot, just enough to keep you connected to Jesus’ words–chances are quite high that you will come across a phrase or story that will become the gospel of your life, a light to illuminate your path.

Let us pray:
Lord, you know how noisy the surface of life can be sometimes, how we can struggle with many voices in our heads and competing pressures in our lives. It’s not easy to know what is the one thing needed, or how we can live in our right mind, from our truest self. Help us to hear your voice, coming to us in silence, in the particular word from Scripture that might guide us now. Help us to find that place within ourselves where deep wisdom resides, so that we might live with peace and clarity. If our lives are the only gospel that others see, Lord, may we embody something of your grace and love.