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Finding Wisdom in Stillness

Elijah was one of the greatest OT prophets, known for his wisdom and power, but Elijah got himself in a bit of trouble after executing 450 prophets of the Canaanite God Ba’al. Specifically, he got in trouble with Queen Jezebel, wife of King Ahab, who vowed revenge. Elijah heard she was out to get him, fled and was watched over by an angel of Yahweh for 40 days and 40 nights until we find him at this point in the story hiding out in a cave. (1 Kings 19)

While in the cave, Yahweh comes to him and asks what he thinks he’s doing. Elijah answers that he’s been a really good prophet, very zealous, but now the people have turned on him and he is running for his life.

Yahweh says, go and stand on the mountain and wait for me to pass by. God essentially invites Elijah to be still and listen.

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountain apart and shattered rocks, but Elijah somehow knew that this wasn’t yet Yahweh. Next there was a huge earthquake, but Elijah still knew that Yahweh wasn’t in the earthquake. Nor was Yahweh in the fire that followed the earthquake. But Elijah had grown very still and was listening very hard when he suddenly heard a gentle whisper (still, small voice, a sound of sheer silence) and he went out to speak to Yahweh and Yahweh tells him what he is to do next.

To me, this is a metaphor for finding the stillness within. Just as Elijah didn’t get sucked into the chaos and noise going on around him, we need to still ourselves often enough, and listen carefully enough, to know that the whirlwinds and busyness of our lives, the times when our very foundations are shaking , and the fires that we rush to put out ARE NOT GOD. We cannot let those overwhelm us and sweep us out of our stance of waiting and listening, because it is in the stillness - even tiny amounts of stillness - where we hear the gentle whisper of the Divine leading us out of the darkness and helping us discern what to do next.

Marcus Borg said that the Hebrew word that is translated into “still, small voice” is bat kol, “the daughter of a sound.” Literally translated into English as a “sound of thinnest silence.” So, the daughter of a sound, the sound of thinnest silence, a still, small voice, a gentle whisper, are all different ways of attempting to express what lies beyond the boundaries of speech. It is the ineffable presence of God. Have you ever heard this sound?

I was 18 or 19 when I first heard that gentle whisper. It said, “Maybe you could be a pastor.” I ignored it. It was messing with my plans. Then I heard it again a few years later, and I ignored it again. Finally, I heard it a third time when I was about 25 and I gave in, and here I am, 30 years later. It's sort of mind-blowing.

But if you haven't heard a voice, don't worry, the gentle whisper of wisdom is not always auditory. Sometimes it is simply a knowing, sometimes it is a vision, sometimes it is a gut feeling. However, it is always easier to "hear" if we’ve stilled our minds and our being.

The story of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha is the quintessential story of finding God in the stillness. For many years Siddhartha sought enlightenment in all kinds of austerities until he found himself emaciated, sick and close to death. He finally decided there had to be a better way.

It was in stillness, meditating under the Bodhi Tree, where he became fully present to all that was in and around him. In that space of stopping, of non-doing, of stillness, it is said that the light of the universe flowed through him and he saw the reality of who he was – the radiance, the compassion, the presence that is our true nature. 

Pianist, Arthur Rubenstein was once asked: “How do you handle the notes as well as you do?” He responded immediately and passionately, “I handle the notes no better than many others. But the pauses, ahh, that’s where the art resides.”

The pause is where the magic happens, the stillness is where we connect to Something More. If our lives are too packed with activity, if there is no pausing, there is not space for a universal flow of wisdom and love and creativity to move through us.

Professor Tara Brach tells the story of a woman who was spending the evening with her mother and her mother told her that she had breast cancer. As soon as her mother said that, of course, she felt the sadness and guilt and anger and regret and future-tripping — all like boom, boom, boom! The initial shock was really intense. Then she went into planning-mode: What needs to happen? What are the treatment options? How soon do we get the lump removed? Rather than pausing, she was going into control-mode. She says: “Thank God for this work on mindfulness, for learning how to pause and arrive because, despite the complete spiral I was in, I still had enough presence to ask that all important question: What am I noticing right now?

That’s the beginning of a pause. Instead of the goal-oriented grasping and fearing activities, noticing right now. “In that moment,” she says, “I was able to do something I would have missed otherwise. My mother didn’t want to talk about any of these things. As I was weighing her options — whether it was a biopsy, mastectomy, etc. — she sat on the high-top chair in my kitchen staring blankly into a cup of coffee. I was trying to be strong for her sake and mine, but it suddenly became clear — that wasn’t what she needed. She was scared and needed to be scared. I debated whether to give her a hug — which sounds terrible, I know — but I was barely holding it together, scurrying around making dinner and poring over doctor’s reports. Staying busy was my way of avoiding a total collapse. But being present — pausing and being present — allowed me to shift to her way. I took a breath, walked across the room, and wrapped my arms around her. It was an awkward sideways hug but it was also a long, necessary one. And then something happened. Slowly she started rocking from side to side, like a mother rocks a child, except the child was now the caretaker. It was a sweet tiny moment I’ll never forget, and one that I surely would have missed were it not for the power of mindfulness.”

The blessing of a pause. This shift from being in the grip of the controlling self — which is our more familiar identity — to, in that pause, opening to inhabit loving presence offers a sensitivity that can respond to the world with inner wisdom. 

The movie, Shindler’s List, was about a German businessman, Oskar Shindler, who arrived in Krakow to make a fortune using a cheap Jewish labor force from the Krakow Ghetto. Shindler seems to see this as nothing more than a good business decision until the Nazi’s order the ghetto to be “liquidated” and a massacre ensues. In the movie we find Shindler watching the chaos and killing from a hill over- looking the ghetto. As he is watching a young Jewish girl of about three wearing a red coat – the only color in a black and white film – walks through the streets oblivious to the carnage around her and goes to hide under a bed. Up until that moment, Schindler couldn’t see past his rationalizations. But in that moment, his perception is transformed and the stillness allows him to notice that which calls him back to his humanity. He goes on to spend most of his fortune on bribes to save over 1,000 Jews from going to the camps.

Stillness does this for us, too. It helps stop the chatter in our heads, it gives us a new perspective, it offers space for wisdom to arise from within and inform our actions and words. It calls us back to ourselves, our light, our compassion, our paths.

Love & Light!