On this Fourth Sunday of the Easter Season (Good Shepherd Sunday) it is clear to me that the Scripture message is about hearing, listening and following the voice of Christ—hearing God’s call. We often identify a person by their voice; and sometimes we even form impressions of someone we’ve never seen before by their voice. We are consoled by the voices of loved ones in hard times—especially in pandemic loneliness. The voice of a person may also resonate within us, inspiring and uniting us, recommitting us to what we believe and love. (When Jesus spoke to Mary and said her name at the tomb, only then did she recognize Him—by His voice.)
Do you remember what it was like years ago at dinnertime when your Mom or Dad would call you to come in from playing outside? It didn’t matter that many voices in the neighborhood might call “Dinner!” at about the same time; you knew the voice specifically calling to you. You knew your parents’ voices, and you headed for home and food, comfort and safety. Today in John’s Gospel Jesus tells us: “…and the sheep hear his voice, as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out…the sheep follow him (the shepherd), because they recognize his voice. But they will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.”
This article today is as much about sound as the necessary silence that surrounds it. There is a story by Anthony de Mellow about a man whose marriage was in trouble and sought his advice, and he said to him, “You must listen to your wife.” The man took his advice to heart and returned after a month to say he had listened to every word his wife was saying. Said he with a smile, “Now go home and listen to every word she isn’t saying.”
We live in a society that does not value or encourage silence. When is the last time you heard someone say, “Let's share some silence?” This kind of statement is rarely heard today, even in church settings (sacred silence) or among the most intimate of friends or family. Most Americans avoid silence at any cost, and many of us fail to realize how important listening and silence are until some conflict or malaise surfaces in any relationship. If we are attentive, we can sense “things just aren't right” and get back to the important discipline of deep listening—not only to what others say, but also to the silence that exists between words. Of course, we can easily “turn up the noise” by watching more TV, Facebook/Tic Toc/Instagram/Twitter videos on computers or phones, keeping the iPod/iPhone going while exercising, and staying ever busier at work—doing anything to avoid being still and silent…
And what is true in our relationship with others is even truer in our friendship with God. If we do not make time to respond to God's invitation to “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10), then our relationship with Him will drift—like two ships passing in the night. One great thing offered by this pandemic is the opportunity to be silent; to listen to each other and to God more closely. God works through all things for good!
Being silent is likely one of the most difficult spiritual exercises we can attempt, at least initially—especially if we are unused to silence. However, those who are trained in the discipline and grace of silence will testify that not only does silence serve as a balm to wounded relationships, the practicing of silence does wonders to prevent spiritual sluggishness or apathy.
In thinking about why we avoid silence, I think that one reason may be that we do not like to wait for anything! We value instant gratification and do everything we can to avoid or to speed up waiting. We tend to consider waiting time to be wasted time instead of utilizing the moment for quiet. Think about the wait in traffic, or in the grocery line, or on hold for something needed. During moments of waiting we can be drawn to silence, and when drawn to silence we just may be able hear the “still, small voice of God.” The Spirit calls to our spirits to enter this silence so that we might live holistic, holy, and centered lives. As we practice this important discipline, slowly and gradually we may become increasingly aware of God's presence and grace.
It is difficult to shut out the world, the worry, the pandemic and fear—but this is a moment when we may stop and take a “God break.” As our souls waits in silence for God alone, many distracting thoughts, images, memories, and secret desires will surface to our conscious mind. However, if we will stay with the silence, and allow the Holy Spirit within us and our own impatient spirit to raise “our stuff” into our consciousness, it will eventually pass on by like debris flowing down a river. As our soul waits on God alone, He will provide not only peace and joy and rest, but also the ever-increasing awareness of His presence. As in everything, it’s all about the practice…
Here are a few “silent” exercises that you may decide to try and practice—while there is time to do so:
* A Five minute “sit” before (and/or after) reading Scripture. In this exercise we are consciously stilling our soul so that we might hear the Word of God. If the silence is too distracting or noisy, some have found it helpful to silently repeat (like a mantra) one of the many names for God.
* A Silent walk. Whether during the day or at night, by oneself or with a friend, a silent walk can be a wonderful time of centering oneself on God and His presence with (and within) us. As a suggestion, if you walk with someone else, you could agree to walk for the first thirty minutes in complete silence followed by a time of sharing what each “heard.”
* Fasting from noise: no phone, radio, TV, movie, computer, etc. What would it be like to take one whole day off from any external noise for the sake of listening to God? Or at least to shut out the news cycle for a day…
* Sharing silence in community (when released to do so). Many have found sharing silence is somewhat easier and enhanced with others. What if any leaders: in worship, preachers, teachers, small group leaders, pray-ers, prefaced or ended their words with the phrase, “Let's share a few minutes of silence together with each other and God?” We often do this out of respect in moments of terrible loss and sorrow—a good, shared, communal moment of silent reflection.
Today the Shepherd calls us by name to feed in green pastures, and to repose by restful waters. We are protected and sheltered by Him. We follow Him because we know His voice when he calls. We are warned that we must not follow other voices that lead us down other paths. The voice of the Good Shepherd calls us to eternal life that flows from our faith. That faith will come to us by responding to the voice of Jesus, in Word, Eucharist and Community. Your job is to listen in silence for His voice and then, to follow. Listening involves more than our ears. When you are really listening to someone, you are still; your eyes are focused on them. They have your full and undivided attention.
Just a note: Here is a Blessing/Benediction I would like to share with you that was written by Rev. John O’Donohue from his book “Benedictus.” Something encouraging for a journey into silence…
For the Senses
May the touch of your skin
Register the beauty of otherness that surrounds you.
May your listening be attuned
To the deeper silence where sound is hones to bring distance home.
May the fragrance of a breathing meadow
Refresh your heart and remind you you are a child of the earth.
And when you partake of food and drink,
May your taste quicken to the gift and sweetness that flows from the earth.
May your inner eye see through the surfaces
And glean the real presence of everything that meets you.
May your soul beautify the desire of your eyes
That you might glimpse the infinity that hides in the simple sights
That seem worn to your usual eyes.