Waiting for God in silence

Sarah Moore

waiting‘Do you crave for space in the midst of your busyness and wonder whether there must be more to life?’

‘The great need of our time is for people to be connected to spirit; for people to be connected in themselves that makes their lives vital and full of meaning, that makes life a mystery to be uncovered.’ (Harold Stone, Sandplay).

So went two statements on the publicity material drawn up for the weekly meditation group at Central URC, Darwen, Lancashire, when I was minister there. The group gathers for around 45 minutes and, other than sometimes some gentle music in the background, gathers in silence. No verbal prayer, no Bible readings, no teaching or exposition, no hymns. This group pushes the boundaries of what might be understood as worship in the Reformed Tradition but perhaps not in ways that one might predict. A brief centring exercise to open and close the space, beyond and between which participants receive an open invitation to use the time as they wish and need.

The group developed out of a more traditional prayer group that had met successfully for a number of years before becoming drained and in need of refreshment. Short periods of silence had been introduced into Sunday morning worship and positively received. The tradition of the Society of Friends had been formative in the journey of a small number of church members who were able to offer the richness of silence as a gift that might be welcomed and embraced rather than something to fear and from which to shy away. It was hoped too that the group might be gently missional in character and to be attractive to those seeking space to search and explore their own spirituality but who have found traditional church to be noisy, wordy and unsustaining. This final aspiration has had limited success although an exceptionally slow trickle of visitors has flowed through the group since our formation in October 2009. Some have come once. Some have attended a few sessions and melted away. We do not see this as failure but rather as the natural consequence of our self-identity as an oasis in a frantic world. We respect through what we do the inherent ability of all seekers, ourselves included, to test out what is right for each individual at that time drinking from the wells that nourish and by-passing the ones that drain.

This style of prayer is sometimes criticised as self-centred and self-indulgent. Where is the challenge some might ask? Is it scripturally based? How does this fulfil Christ’s call to go and make disciples of all nations?

Meditation is part of the contemplative tradition that has flowed through all parts of the church from the very beginning. Sometimes and in some places this flow has been a thunderous river, sometimes a gentle river or stream, sometimes the ditch that attempts are made to divert or dam up completely. All end up in the deep and life-filled ocean of the divine presence. This is a spiritual discipline that can be traced to all the occasions in the Gospels where we read of Jesus and his friends withdrawing to a lonely place for prayer and refreshment, away from the crowds. It can be traced back before then to the stillness imaged by some of the psalms and the prophet Elijah standing out on Mt Horeb, finding that the Lord was neither in wind, earthquake or fire but could be heard in sheer silence (1 Kings 19.11–13). Into the life of the Church, we find this tradition in the early Desert Fathers and Mothers who were entreated to ‘go and sit in your cell and God will give you peace’. On through the founding and life of the contemplative religious orders such as the Carmelites and Carthusians to the turbulence of the Reformation.

It is an easy temptation for us to imagine that the experience of silence, meditation and contemplation stopped there for Reformed Christians, that here we yoked ourselves to Martha leaving Mary to reflect and adore her Lord in peace. In places we did. In other places we did not. Remember and read about some of the stars of the Reformed Tradition that the pollution of our busyness and obsession around doing has blanked out. Mystical union with Christ has long been an aim of the searching and seeking Reformed Christian with this aspiration alluded to by none less than John Calvin. John Owen wrote of the power of communion with God and it seems reasonable to imagine and suppose that classics such as John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress were grounded in not only careful Bible study and reflection but also on silent waiting in God’s presence.

It is difficult to measure and quantify quite what can be received from meditatively resting in the stillness of God. On occasions, the stillness is very difficult if nigh on impossible to muster. On other days moving into the silence feels as easy as slipping on a favourite and comfortable coat. Sometimes in the silence the mind whirs and spins and the to-do list mushrooms. This is the time to hold onto the promise that God will always show up, to remember much tried and tested techniques for meditation: awareness of breath or physical sensation or use of a short phrase or mantra or to allow the glory of a piece of music or arrest of a striking image to catch our attention and move beyond it. Meditation is intentional; it can be about allowing ones mind to wander freely but more fruitful is the aspiration to gently let go of thought and of feeling and to simply be. It is a glorious gift which connects the Reformed Christian to Christians of all backgrounds, times and place and to our spiritually searching neighbours of all faiths and none.