This past summer, I finally started reading Thomas Merton’s classic spiritual memoir, “The Seven Storey Mountain.” It had been sitting on my shelf for several years. I bought the book after one of my mentors recommended it as a good introduction to contemplative spirituality. I found the prospect of contemplative spirituality appealing—appealing enough, at least, to make me want to buy the book. Not appealing enough, however, to make me want to read it.
Developing a practice of contemplative spirituality—the discipline of resting in God’s presence, of being with God as opposed to doing for God—has long been a struggle for me. I’ve wanted to go there, I’ve felt myself drawn toward there, but I haven’t managed to muster the will to put myself intentionally in a position to, as the Lord commands, “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) on a regular basis. Though I have for years set aside time in the morning to read Scripture and pray, I’ve resisted the call to make a constructive habit of being still, being silent, and being attentive to God. I’ve been like the person who wants to become a runner, and so he goes out and buys fancy new shoes—but then can’t bring himself to put them on and go for a jog around the block. He loves the idea of being a runner, but the reality is intimidating, so he stays on the sofa. That’s how it’s been for years with me and the discipline of contemplative prayer, neatly symbolized by that Thomas Merton book gathering dust on my shelf like a pair of brand new Nikes, still in the box, stashed away somewhere in the closet.
For whatever reason, then—let’s call it the Holy Spirit—I finally pulled Merton off the shelf, took him
to the beach with me last summer, and started reading.
I can’t say that my life has changed all that dramatically. I can say, though, that I now understand better why I’ve so long resisted the call to form the good habit of sitting in God’s presence and simply being with Him. Thomas Merton helped me put my finger on the problem. “We are so obsessed with doing,” he writes, “that we have no time and no imagination left for being. As a result, [people] are valued not for what they are, but for what they do or what they have—for their usefulness.”
That, for me, is a powerful statement, largely because it is so accurate. If I sit still, then I’m not working—and if I’m not working, then I’m not useful—and if I’m not useful, then what good am I to anybody? What a terribly compelling train of thought! More than we care to admit, I suspect, it drives us and defines us in ways that prevent us from finding any genuine peace in God. Jesus may have invited all who are weary and heavy laden to come to Him and receive the rest He has to offer (Matthew 11:28), but—for the very reasons Merton suggests—it’s a frightening prospect to consider actually doing so. It’s intimidating to think about not being “useful,” even if only for a while.
It’s funny, then, how the Lord works on us. Just about the time all these thoughts began circulating in my soul, I started teaching a Wednesday night seminar on prayer. Out of that seminar, a small praying community has developed. The purpose? Encouraging one another to be still and know God through daily times of silence and prayer. Once a week, we meet to practice being in silence together and praying as a community. For now, we gather at 4:45pm on Wednesdays in Room 2105. Anyone who would like to join us is welcome to do so. We’re hopeful that, in time, from this initial praying community, new ones will form in our church—and that God will use our willingness to be still in His presence to shape us into people who are closer to His heart.
Learning to be still and listen to the Spirit is a process. It certainly goes against the grain of just about every single habit our doing-obsessed culture teaches us to cultivate. I’ll be honest: It continues to be a hard thing for me to do. But I can tell you that it’s a lot easier to imagine a different, better way to be faithful when I am in the company of Christian friends who are seeking the same thing.
May the peace of Christ be with you!