Return to Our Senses: Learning to Listen

by Christine Sine
Learning to Listen

Learning to Listen

The following post is the sixth in a series that is excerpted from my upcoming book Return to Our Senses, which will be available in mid November.

One of my favorite Old Testament stories is that of Elijah fleeing from Jezebel into the desert as related in 1 Kings 19. I love it partly because it shows the human side of Elijah, stressed out, depressed, and afraid. In the midst of his despair God comes to him in one of the most beautiful and loving descriptions of a God encounter in the Bible: 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. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (1 Kings 19:18)

We live in a world that is full of noise and in a culture that places little value on silence. Many of us have learnt to distrust quiet, viewing it more as a vacuum to be filled than as an important place to meet with God. We have no idea and often no desire to sit quietly without noise or distraction for more than a few minutes. Yet there is an ache in our hearts that can only be filled by fully attending to the God who is only heard in the midst of sheer silence. If we sit in stillness and reach deep within our hearts there we can always find the gentle whispers of God’s voice and the love that overflows from that place of silence.

Listen to the Silence

So what does sheer silence really sound like? How do we hear the quiet whispers of such a place and when we do, what makes us want to respond by coming out of the caves in which we have hidden to listen to God?

St Benedict uses 2 words for silence: quies and selentium. Quies is the silence that comes with the absence of noise. The silence that engulfs us when we turn off the TV, disconnect from the internet and discard our cell phones. This is an external silence. It is an extremely important form of silence that all of us who live busy, urban lives need to enter into.

Sixteenth century mystic, John of the Cross called silence “God’s first language” not the language so much of a silent place as of a silent soul. This is silentium an internal and intentional posture of complete attentiveness towards God. It is a silence of making space for, taking time for and paying loving attention to the One we proclaim to be our God and king. It is more challenging to enter into this kind of silence because it doesn’t just mean finding a quiet place. It means establishing a quiet inner attitude in which we set aside the distractions of our minds and hearts, draw from the stillness that is within us and communion with the spirit of God in a very special way. I am sure this is the kind of sheer silence that Ezekiel experienced in the wilderness.

This kind of silence is often expressed in what we call contemplative prayer. Marjorie Thompson in her compelling book Soul Feast, explains: A simple gaze toward the One who loves us unshakably – this is contemplative prayer. It is absorption in loving God with our whole being – not strenuously, but as a spontaneous response of the heart. Contemplative prayer is resting in God, allowing the Spirit to fill and move us as God wills. It is pure receptivity and adoration. It is quiet, tender and sober, or playful gentle and joyous.

Contemplative prayer has the quality of an inner Sabbath. In a world driven by the need to accomplish and acquire, in a world where we judge one another on the basis of performance, God calls us to the radical trust of rest. Does the Lord require so much of us that we cannot join God in a little divine rest?”

In Sanctuary of the Soul Richard Foster comments that constant distractions create noisy hearts, wandering minds and perpetual inner chaos. “Our ability to listen to the voice of God and enter into contemplative prayer is easily disrupted and even the questions that bring us into the presence of God seeking answers create their own distractions and contribute to our inner turmoil.”

Foster suggests that reciting poetry is one way to help still our distractions and quiet our wandering minds. He comments that poetry often startles us with its economy of words and beauty of language. “Words, carefully chosen and beautifully written, have a way of slowing us down and focusing our attention on essential matters.

I love this idea and have found that the Bible itself is the best place to start when looking for poetic insight. The psalmists in particular, in a few beautifully crafted words create images that slow us down and focus our attention. Reading them over and over so that we savor the depths of their intent further calms our spirits. The images they conjure catch our imagination and draw us into a place in which we are more easily able to hear the voice of God as we read through other scriptures as well. Sometimes they encourage us to write our own poetry either adapting the psalms we have read or something completely new that springs creatively into being. Such poems are often specific to our own way of thinking and view of the world.

This post is excepted from my new book Return to Our Senses which is now available through Mustard Seed Associates at a pre-publication discounted price of $15.

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Mark Knox October 27, 2012 - 8:22 am

I loved this post- beautiful and insightful. I’m now looking forward to your book.

Christine Sine October 27, 2012 - 12:48 pm

Thanks Mark

Shelly October 27, 2012 - 9:14 am

I’ve come to love the external silence. I’m learning about the internal silence and get to experience that deepness with God more and more.

Christine Sine October 27, 2012 - 12:50 pm

External silence is so hard to find in our world today. It is no wonder our world in in turmoil. I feel that discovering the internal silence of God’s presence is essential for us to survive with peace and harmony.

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