How do you learn God’s timeless language of silence?
About sixteen years ago, when I first began the practice of contemplative prayer, I discovered that I shared something in common with centuries of pilgrims that had gone before me in this discipline. Whenever I intentionally entered into silence, my brain wouldn’t shut up. I sought counsel concerning this in the literature of mysticism and ran across the term “monkey brain.” Folks used that term as a picture of how, whenever they entered into silent centering, their thoughts would just leap about from thought to thought. I mentioned this in my own sessions with a counselor and he described the experience with a much more 21st century metaphor: “the cocktail party in my head.”
Indeed. It seems that whenever I get silent, all kinds of thoughts, profound and profane, significant and ridiculously trivial, parade through my awareness. I’ll think thoughts about someone in the hospital with terminal cancer right along with wondering whether or not I put the milk back in the refrigerator. And sometimes, I’ll even hear some musical phrase repeating – along with the verbal thoughts. It might be quiet in the room, but my brain screams! Cacophony in my head!
So, what do I do about this “cocktail party” clattering around in my skull? I really want to be silent and hear God, but there’s all this . . . stuff!
First, our intent means much. I like what Thomas Merton has said, confirmed by many others from Richard Rohr, to Thomas Keating, to Glen Hinson, and Mother Theresa. Our genuine intent to listen to God pleases God in and of itself. Our intention matters.
Second, we reenforce this intention by repeating what the masters have called “the sacred word.” Whenever we become aware that the volume of the cocktail party is increasing, we repeat the sacred word in our mind (not out loud). That word could be any phrase or term, like “peace,” or “shalom,” or “grace.” I have always used the word “Abba,” the Aramaic equivalent of “daddy.” I have a friend who repeats, “I am here.” We don’t repeat this phrase with any sense of desperation, or frustration, because we know before we enter the silence that we WILL have a parade of thoughts. That’s what our brains are designed to do.
But – and this is a huge part of the point of the practice – our brains are also capable of much more than verbal perceptions and expressions. The repetition of the sacred word, calmly and quietly in our minds, opens space for that non-verbal aspect of ourselves to grow. It is precisely this intentional interruption of our thoughts that unites us with God’s “thoughts,” though upon emerging from our practice, we are hard pressed to put those thoughts into words. Indeed, what we experience in the silence is bigger than human language.
It will feel strange at first. In fact, there are many parallels between learning God’s language and learning a spoken language besides your mother tongue. In both cases, you have to spend time immersed in the culture of the new language before it begins to feel natural. Stick with it, though, and pretty soon, you’re picking up vocabulary, grammar and expressions on your own. More on that in the next blog.