When I was teaching 5th and 6th grade religion class at St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School I had a challenge for each of the six sections of 5th graders I saw every week: two full minutes of silence at the start of each class. No talking, no whispering, no dropping something on the floor, no giggling…it was an immense challenge. The reward was that if they could do it just once I would buy them pizza and ice cream and we would have a party at the end of the year.
Sometimes I would give them a theological question to ponder while they were silent. Other times I would instruct them, “Just sit silently and enjoy not having to DO anything for two minutes.” How many times did I have to pay up? Zero.
Towards the end of the year, and after telling the class that their archenemies, one of the other sections in the 5th grade, had made it all the way to one minute and 48 seconds of silence, one particularly competitive girl in a moment of frustration with her fellow noisemakers burst out, “Shhhh! Everybody just shut up! Shut up for two minutes, is it REALLY that hard?!”
Turns out being silent and still for two minutes is darn near impossible for just about everyone, especially 5th graders coming to religion class right after gym class.
On Wednesday night, as part of the Get Fed series and six-week conversation I’m leading on how we “Live our Faith Monday through Saturday,” I asked the 20 or so people to sit in silence for one minute. What we noticed is that one minute seems like an eternity to sit and be still. Several people remarked that they couldn’t get their brains to quiet down with all sorts of thoughts zipping past. Others noticed that they were focusing on random noises and had a difficult time not concentrating on those noises they heard.
The point of the exercise was that in our overly-scheduled lives, we don’t make time to listen for God, especially in our prayer life. We are pretty good, when we actually make the effort to carve out time for prayer, to TALK to God…but we don’t tend to remember that LISTENING for God is the other side of that same coin and just as important.
But the noises of life, and the roar of thoughts that happen inside our heads can make one heck of a racket. When we are able to create those moments of silence we should expect that God will, in God’s own way, speak to us. Here the words of the story of Elijah–waiting to hear the voice of the Lord which comes to him out of the sheer silence–come to my mind:
11“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; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13When 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 19:11-12
Sometimes the great wind, the splitting of the mountains and rocks, earthquakes and fires may seem to be going on all around us, maybe even inside of us. Admittedly those noises in and around us are difficult to clear away so that we can hear the voice of God speaking to us. Practicing those minutes of silence can lead to finding our own holy silence and hopefully even the voice of God.
My hope is that those minutes of silence will indeed become holy and sacred for you. Now, I won’t buy you pizza and ice cream if you can achieve two full minutes of silence, but I can tell you that in those two minutes you very well may hear that still small voice, those “sighs too deep for words,” of God and the Holy Spirit.