30 Nov In search of stillness…
Immediately I arrive at Mucknell Abbey, I pick up its rhythms, its pace, its quiet activity. I am here for three days. Even the pulse of the M5 from across the several surrounding fields only serves to emphasize the reality of the stillness to be found here.
It is good to be reminded of how being still is the much sought after state of many religious traditions: stillness of body, mind, and spirit. I read the other day that 80% of our daily thoughts tend to be negative. In one of the morning Offices here we acknowledged in prayer that God turns God’s face from us when we trust only in ourselves, a prayer that then asked God to strip us from false securities. Those negative thoughts that come to us all are not where our true self is to be found, though they might point to it. I know I have a deeply-rooted desire for my thoughts to settle, to become more mindful of my passing moments, and open to God: ‘Be still, and know that I am God’ (Psalm 46:10).
‘Monastics should diligently cultivate silence at all times’, writes St Benedict in Chapter 42 of his Rule, ‘but especially at night.’ He knows that silence will provide the best environment in which we can grow, through listening to God, and to one another. Joan Chittister, commenting on this chapter of Benedict’s Rule, says that silence enables us ‘to hear the talk within us that shows us our pain and opens our mind to the truths of life and the presence of God.’ One outcome of silence is stillness, and when we are still we might become more aware of our failings. Stillness reminds us we are simple sparrows, not eagles, and that we all share the same human nature. Stillness is a reminder of our mortality, as well as our immortality.
How might I begin to find a stillness in my body, mind, and spirit in my daily life?
Physical stillness sounds like it ought to be easy to find, but often isn’t, especially if we always want to be up and about doing things. Curiously, I can find physical stillness on a train. The landscape or city rushes past, someone else is doing the driving, and I can stare at those distant trees on the horizon, or nearby buildings, or close my eyes and sit back, and give in to it all. Or I can find stillness in bed. I wake in the night and, instead of trying to go to back to sleep, I lie back, find a comfortable position, and simply acknowledge that this is a time of rest, for doing nothing. And sometimes my stillness turns again into sleep.
Stillness of mind entails avoiding the temptation to make comments or pass judgements, either internally or externally. I find this state most possible when engaged in physical exercise or work, the practice and concentration of which can help to subdue my restless thoughts (walking, running, yoga, gardening). Or I can find stillness of mind from looking out onto a view, walking over the cliffs, through the fields and woodland, or doing a jigsaw puzzle, or looking at a painting.
For a Benedictine, spiritual stillness comes with a surrender to the words of the Divine Office, a removal of oneself from the frame, a cessation of anything that leads us to think or feel that we are in control of God. Stillness of spirit is to found in the letting-go. The repetitions built into the Offices help here: the ‘Glory be’ at the end of each psalm as we sign-off the gift of praise we have just made (and received). The refrains before and after the psalms and canticles also serve to heighten a sense of steadiness and stillness. A cultivated inner and external silence is the foundation as well as the fruit of the stillness we seek, ‘but’, as Benedict reminds us, ‘especially at night.’
Opportunities for stillness in body, mind, and spirit are all times when I can turn my daily activity into expressing my love for God, and be reminded of God’s love for me, moments when my daily storm is made peaceful.
And they help to cultivate an inner sense of silence.
Paul Edmondson is Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. He was ordained as an Anglican priest in 2011 and is a long-standing friend of SSMV.