Embracing the Silence of Death and Life

by George Swanson


During the sixteen months that my wife was dying of colonic cancer I sort of fell into silent prayer.  Well, I was also pushed.

I fell this way.  The hospice nurse told me always to sleep when Katrina did.  That way I would be rested and ready for action if we should have a bad night.  As it happened we only had two bad nights.  Thanks to the beautiful hospice care and the instructions we received on using the morphine, whenever she was asked what her pain level was “from one to ten,” Katrina would always answer, “Zero.”  The morphine let her sleep maybe ten or fifteen hours a day.  So I got entirely enough sleep and often lay awake beside her.

Fifty years earlier I had found the Jesus Prayer.  (Or it found me.)  Jesus Christ, child of God, have mercy on us sinners.  Lying beside Katrina and looking at the out-of-focus ceiling the Jesus Prayer would come echoing into my mind.  After some repetitions it would taper off into a pleasant silence.  I would find myself with a slight smile – looking at the ceiling affectionately and peacefully.

I was pushed in this way.  I had the good fortune to talk with Maggie Ross, the author of books on prayer and also how the church ought to shape up.  We had a great deal in common.  And yet she strongly criticized my attempts to pray certain prayers four times a day and repeat dozens and dozens of names asking G-d* to help them.  For two hours she urged me to “Put away the words!  Too many words.  Go into the silence.”  And so, except for public worship in church I have pretty much left all words behind.

* In reference to the ineffable mystery behind the word “God” some Jewish writers refer to G-d, replacing the letter “o” with a dash.  This helps us avoid the bearded-old-man in the sky.  We realize that the source and end of our life cannot be described in words or pictures.I will attempt to do three things:

There seem to be no fixed rules – over the centuries people have found different things work for different people.  Each of us can find our way to G-d who is always within us.  Jesus promised that Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth.

I will attempt to do three things:
1)  Suggest ways to get into the silent place within us.
2)  Describe things one can do in the silence.
3)  Share some results people have found after being in silence.  I imagine the results will be different for all of us.

1)  Getting into the Silent Place

At first it helps to go into the silence at the same time each day and in the same place.  Later on we may find it easy to enter our inner silence anywhere at any time.  We don’t need silence outside.  I imagine one can enter silence on a noisy street or in a boiler factory.

People have used just about any position: from sitting straight on the edge of a wooden chair to relaxing on one’s bed.  Each of us will find what works.

Breathing is not only necessary; it is a way G-d is always within us.  We can exhale – slowly and gently, as much as possible – and then, gently welcome the new breath deeper and deeper.  It is the rhythm of life itself.

If you wish to begin by focusing on something – a word, a candle, an icon – be ready to leave it behind and move on into empty silence.  G-d is not in a crucifix, holy picture, flower, or even any idea of G-d.  All these things are created.  Ideas are created by our minds.  We are invited to focus on G-d who is not a created thing.  G-d is no thing.  So we embrace nothing.  We desire nothing.

G-d is not defined by a three letter word.  G-d is beyond words.  Beyond definition.  Beyond theology or dogma.  Just like us.  We are also beyond words.  Our so-called “personality” is a mosaic of colors – gaudy or grey – having little or no relationship to who we really are in our deepest truth.

Getting ready to go into the silent place is preparing to do nothing.  Silence is not an activity.  It has no agenda.  More like relaxing into being, into breathing, into peace.

Paraphrasing Meister Eckhart, a teacher of prayer in the early 14th Century, “Your eyes looking at God are God’s eyes looking at you.”

2)  In the Silence

We can accept whatever “interruption” may come into our mind, notice it peacefully, and let it pass like weather around a solid mountain that cannot be moved.  Each of us is like Mount Zion “which shall never be moved.”

All sorts of worries may come: regrets, resentments, dangers – “How could I have hurt my husband/wife like that?”  “How could she/he have hurt me?”  “Did I turn off the stove?”

They come and they go talking of Michelangelo.

The Jesus Prayer – or simply repeating “Jesus” or a prayer word – brings us gently back into the silent land.

We are alive – G-d and you – G-d and I.  So we don’t have to talk a about it, think about it, make words about it.  All we do is breathe.  All we do is be.

It is a time when creative inspirations can come to mind.  If they are really gifts from G-d they will return when it is time for us to use them.  We don’t need to write anything down.  We are doing something more important now.  We are at the center of ourselves – the center of Life – the center of Love – the center of G-d.  It is so beautiful to be oneself with the one who created us, who rejoiced to see us born, and who saw that we are good.

3)  After the silence

Some people find that their compassion increases for all life, for all creation, for enemies and friends, and even for oneself – that person who is part of G-d.

Priorities may become clearer – what is important to do now and what can best be done later.

One may begin to understand that G-d has everything in hand.  “All shall be well.  And all manner of things shall be well.”  Julian of Norwich thought that was true.  I wonder if this is also true:  “All is well.  And all manner of things is well.”  And even:  “All has been well.  And all manner of things has been well.

One may be less anxious.

We may trust our judgment more.  After all, G-d is within us.  Do we have all the answers?  No, we are just like the Bible, the Creeds, and the Pope – inspired and fallible.  And yet – Emmanuel – G-d is with us.

It is a great joy to be oneself, alive, having gone into the silence of death and life itself.

Notes on Embracing Silence and Peace

When I was visiting St. Francis’ House in New London’s inner city, Emmett Jarrett and Anne Scheibner gave me a copy of Maggie Ross’s “The Fire in your Life” to help me pray.  This led me to read Ross’s other books.  When I offered Chilton Knudsen, the Episcopal Bishop of Maine, a copy of Ross’s “Pillars of Flame” she laughed and declined, saying she had a copy and had written on every page.  However she gave me Ross’s email.  Emails led to a two hour conversation about prayer which moved me to spend time with G-d in silence rather than with any words.  Ross recommended “Into the Silent Land” by Martin Laird, whom Ross had helped on his pilgrimage.  Laird’s book is the basis of these thoughts on silent prayer.  Ross also recommended Beverly Lanzetta’s On the Other Side of Nothingness which suggests that the mystics of all faiths are the only hope for world peace.  It is a great book, based partly on Meister Eckhardt.

Praised by Archbishop Rowan Williams, Ross’s Pillars of Flame has just been republished by Seabury Press with an introduction by Desmond Tutu.  Ross sees that hierarchy, patriarchy and dogmatism are like the emperor – no clothes.  I see hierarchy as a mental illness similar to the sickness of colonialism (as defined by psychologist and revolutionary Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth.)  If I wrote a jacket blurb for Pillars, it might be something like this:

Maggie Ross reverses eighteen centuries of bad decisions by various vicars of Christ – east and west – mostly west – by reviving Syrian theologians to replace Platonic and Aristotelian linear nonsense with Semitic theology; by exposing hierarchy as incompatible with Jesus’ self emptying; and by offering solitude and silence as an antidote to western Christianity’s tradition of violence and oppression.
In our chaotic lives how can we find the peace Jesus offers us?  Try a few minutes of the Jesus Prayer before drifting off to sleep, if wakeful during the night, and at occasional moments in the day.  This might give you brief visits into the silent land.  Finding this peace may be the most important things we can do for ourselves and for the people in our lives.  It may be the hope of the whole world.  And the reason Jesus came to earth.

If you cared to contact me, I’d enjoy sharing our experiences – in conversation or in silence.

 – George


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