Silence Before the Mystery of Life

By Thomas W. Shepherd, D.Min.
Silence Before the Mystery of Life

Silence before the awesome Presence and Power of the Divine is a continuous biblical theme. Elijah's encounter with the "the still small voice" of the King James Bible is better rendered by the New Revised Standard Version:

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; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

Rabbis have long spoken about building a fence around the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Dr. Joseph H. Hertz, who at the time was Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, wrote in his commentary to Pirke Avoth (The Sayings of the Fathers):

"Surround it (Torah) with cautionary rules that shall, like a danger signal, halt a man before he gets within breaking distance of the Divine statute itself. On the Sabbath, for example, even the handling of work-tools is forbidden."

Pirke Avoth links the "fence" around the Torah to the human need for silence. "Tradition is a safety fence to Torah, tithing a safety fence to wealth, vows a safety fence for abstinence; a safety fence for wisdom is silence."

Eckhart Tolle offers concrete reasons to practice quietness:

Don't apply your mind without the stillness because, if you start applying your mind without the stillness, you might very soon lose yourself in the mind and that turns into worry. Worry means the mind is controlling you. Worry is always pointless. A solution never comes out of worry.

Despite the universal hunger for spirituality, silence itself can be intensely bothersome to many people. …

When I was studying for my doctorate at a mainline theological seminary, I had the opportunity to work with outstanding students from a number of denominations. During one course on spirituality, we divided into small teams and took responsibility for leading the class through discussions and exercises. I selected silent prayer, and when it was my turn, I set up the exercise by inviting my fellow graduate students in ministry to become still and go within for a period of contemplative silence.

"Hmmm ... how long should I give them?" I thought. "Five minutes is not nearly enough to enter the Silence, but even that might be taxing their meditative muscles. Okay ... two solid minutes, then we debrief the experience." I set my watch and closed my eyes.

Thirty-two seconds later, another member of my team started praying aloud, wrapping up the session with thanks and praise. I was utterly astounded. These weren't business people or school teachers or adolescents eager to get home before the kickoff. They were ministers in training or practicing clergy! If we could not sit in silence for two minutes, how could we possibly recommend meditation to others? It occurred to me the very impatience we feel during extended bouts of silent prayer is the disquiet of the mind exerting itself.  …

Oceanographers say the sea remains tranquil below 25 feet. No matter how badly the storm rages on top of the ocean, the water is tranquil deep below.

Speaking of tranquility, Neil Armstrong landed the "Eagle" on the moon in July 1969 and promptly proclaimed the location Tranquility Base. Considering how untranquil the final leg of the journey had been, the choice was steeped in irony. When those first astronauts descended to the surface in Apollo l1's Lunar Module, boulders littered the original landing site. Armstrong took manual control and flew the LM like a helicopter to a safe spot, with less than a minute's fuel remaining.

NASA seemed to be communicating a basic principle of confident living: You can find tranquility in the midst of turmoil. The question is, How can we find depth of peace in the midst of storms and hazardous landings of life?

I grew up in a Pennsylvania town faraway from the ocean and walked on a rugged beach for the first time as an 18-year-old soldier in California. The mountains of the Golden State tumble down to white sands strewn with surf-pounded boulders, creating some of the most picturesque coves in the world. I loved walking its rocky coasts beside a blue-green sea.

One afternoon as I wandered at low tide, I discovered multiple pools of seawater trapped in those rocky enclaves. Sometimes the pools were deep enough to wade knee-deep, and here and there I saw little sea critters scuttling away from my toes. Water-breathers, unaware of their perilous circumstances. They were creatures of the ocean, and now sunbaked sand surrounded their world, the very definition of a desert. Yet there were forces at work beyond their imagination, which would bring back the life-giving sea. A hot star and cold moon danced and tugged at the watery skirts of the earth, which would soon reverse the emptying process. Cool, briny tidewater will flood the beach anew, releasing these tiny prisoners from their shallow grave.

Life is very much like the tidal pools—sometimes a desert, sometimes a deep ocean. As self-aware creatures, humans know the phases of life and see the tides receding. Still it is difficult in the midst of personal crisis to remember the tide will turn, life will bring its refreshing flood when the time is right. The important question about survival of consciousness is probably not answerable on this side of the final tide flow. Until the day comes when life yields to the next reality, we creatures in the tidal pool of life can find stillness and quiet in the space we currently occupy as the great cosmic tide continues its dance of sea, sky, and shore.

This article is excerpted from The Many Faces of Prayer by Thomas W. Shepherd. Tom is a professor of theology and church history at Unity Institute® and Seminary, a columnist for Unity Magazine®, and host of the program Let's Talk About It on Unity Online Radio.