Before I had my last surgery, I spent most of the summer overseas in Germany. During my time there, I committed myself to spending time in God’s Word each day. I had a book about the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius and the first section had me meditating on verses that speak of God’s love each day. Being in Germany for those couple months had given me a much needed break from our society’s busyness and consumerism. My faith, which had felt dry leading up to the move over there, began to come alive once again.
But I remember that as the time to come back to the United States grew closer, I began to experience some anxiety about the pending operation. There was one day where, upon reading the daily passage of Scripture, I didn’t experience God’s closeness and love. My anxiety was too great and it was preventing me from sensing God’s presence and peace. So, I stopped trying to force God to speak to me through the assigned passage of Scripture and started with where I was at instead. I prayed to God, telling Him how I felt, how absent He seemed, and how I merely wanted a Word from Him to calm my soul. At that point, I suddenly became aware that my cat had been darting around, probably in an effort to receive my attention. It had been irritating and distracting to me up to that point, but as soon as I attended to what was going on and opened up to the situation, my cat settled by a picture that had been given to me of a ship in a stormy sea. Below the images were verses from Scripture. “The Lord on high is mightier than the roar of many waters, yea, than the mighty waves of the sea” and “He gives His people strength and blesses them with peace” (Psalm 93:4; 29:11). As soon as I read those passages, I felt my heart to be “strangely warmed”.
As the above demonstrates, one of the hardest tasks of the spiritual life is developing an inner stillness that cultivates an attentiveness to what God is doing in our midst. And yet I believe that such an inner stillness is crucial to growth in the spiritual life. T.S. Eliot clearly thought so too, for he writes in “East Coker”, “Here or there does not matter / We must be still and still moving”.1 I believe that Eliot is referring to cultivating an inner stillness even as we are outwardly “still moving”.2 Not only is this inner stillness key to growth in the spiritual life, but it is key to hearing and discerning God’s voice. As Scripture states rather bluntly, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10 ESV).
So how does one develop such a stillness? According to the Jesuit priest from India, Tony D’Souza, it is by awareness. As he states, “Awareness stills [the wandering] mind, and brings this level of stillness.”3 He defines awareness as consisting of two elements: being present in the moment, and observing what is going on in the present without judgment or evaluation.4 And as my experience in being attentive to the present moment with my cat and the subsequent sense of peace I experienced demonstrates, it is this awareness that results in stillness.
In the last post, I wrote about how God is more concerned with shaping our characters so that we will be people who naturally make decisions in line with His will than in guiding the minutiae of our lives. In saying that, I do not wish to give the impression that the role of discernment and the need to seek God’s voice and will for our lives is unimportant in the spiritual life. It is to say that stillness is required in order to hear what God might be saying in the first place, even as we are relentlessly engaged in the tasks of daily living. As Dallas Willard states, “Generally, it is much more important to cultivate the quiet, inward space of a constant listening than to always be approaching God for specific direction.”5 But if I might be allowed to expound on Willard’s statement, when one does need to approach God for specific direction, it is much easier to hear what He is saying when one has already developed the habit of listening for His voice. As Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27-28 ESV) Jesus, as the good Shepherd, speaks to us and offers to be in relationship with us as His statement “I know them” indicates, but as His sheep we have to be listening for His voice.
God’s voice is often manifested as a still, small voice which impresses itself quite impact-fully on one’s inner being. And that is why awareness and inner stillness is so crucial. It’s easy to miss God’s voice if one is not attending to the daily movements of one’s inward self. I myself often drown out God’s voice in thoughts and ideas, busyness, anxiety, consumption of goods, image management, etc. But I am intentional about cultivating my time with God in prayer and in His Word, and there have been times when I have received some rather specific guidance. So allow me to close with another vignette from my life, this time in Germany after my surgery.
When I was able to travel back to Germany, I continued my daily time with God. After several months, there reached a point where I began to seek God’s guidance on what I would do when I returned to the United States. I prayed about what God would have me do with my life, and then one day the idea occurred to me quite suddenly and strongly that I should consider becoming a spiritual director. The idea impressed itself on me strongly enough that I knew it wasn’t likely to be my own thoughts. At the same time, since I don’t know of any spiritual directors who make a living just from providing spiritual direction, I knew that I would come back and engage in finding a job in the profession I had studied in and would work on providing spiritual direction part-time. So that’s exactly what I did. And to find out exactly how it turned out you’ll have to read the next blog post, but for now let’s just say the process led to “a deeper communion”.
1 “Four Quartets” Wikiquote. Accessed on 27 January 2018. <https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Four_Quartets>
2 Tony D’Souza Introduces Discovering Awareness, Tony D’Souza, Broadband Living Press, 2009.
3 Tony D’Souza and Bud Wonsiewicz, Discovering Awareness: A Guide to Inner Peace, Strength, and Freedom (Canada: Broadband Living Press, 2006), 36.
4 My thanks go to Leighton Ford for this small insight in his book The Attentive Life, which I read many years ago. It’s an insight that has shaped my perspective on life, cultivated my appreciation for T.S. Eliot, and led to this blog post series. The sentence that set me on this path is, “To walk [the] path home, and to be a companion to others on the journey, I need to learn both to be still and to go (or grow) deeper.” Leighton Ford, The Attentive Life: Discerning God’s Presence in All Things (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2008), 13.
5 Dallas Willard, Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2012), 205. eBook.