Updated: Aug 18
I don’t know if you’ve ever washed dishes by hand. In an age of dishwashers, perhaps that’s a lost art. We moved about eight months ago into a 1940’s brick craftsman with a 1970’s kitchen that had no dishwasher. Our previous apartment had one. So, I’ve had to go back to washing dishes by hand, and I’ve enjoyed it. There’s something about getting your hands dirty, and doing something yourself that feels satisfying.
In an age where technology promises to do everything for us, it’s good to go back to the basics of simple work with simple rewards.
Stillness is kind of like washing dishes. Have you ever had that dish, so caked with dried on grime that scrubbing just didn’t seem to be doing any good? So, you’re left with the choice of getting a jackhammer to chip it off, or just letting it soak a while till all the hard grim softens up and comes off with hardly any effort.
The practice of stillness is kind of like that. It’s about the work of doing nothing in order to accomplish a kind of inner cleansing that no amount of self-willed effort or moral scrubbing can produce. It’s about surrendering to a process much bigger than ourselves, which brings the rest and peace we’ve be struggling to get, but seems to be getting nowhere in our own efforts.
This is the point of good religion, to teach us how to be still enough to let God do the work of reconnecting us to our whole being. And it comes through stillness.
It comes through the end of our attempts to be good people by doing good things, and letting God reveal the goodness that is already inherent at the center of our being. It is an approach that requires stripping down and removing, instead of adding on and acquiring.
It is in giving up our attempt to be good or do good that brings us back to the reality that we already are, and always have been. We were made good from the beginning by a God who doesn’t make anything bad. Stillness allows for the space to better see who we are, in light of who God is. The result of this process is peace. But what is peace, in light of stillness?
We often think of peace as the absence of noise or conflict, but the process of stillness brings a peace that sustains in the midst of this busy, noisy, violent, data driven world without needing to remove us from it. That peace is not achieved by quieting the world around us, but by quieting the world within us, and is better described by the ancient Jewish idea of peace, called Shalom. But what is this Shalom, and how does the practice of stillness help us get there?
Shalom is things as they ought to be. It is a state of being which entails the reality that everything is right, everything is good, and everything is operating as it was meant to be.
It can be reflected in the absence of conflict, the enjoyment of a felt peace, the calm of joy where nothing around us seems wrong, and the absence of violent oppression or constrained freedom, but that is not at the heart of Shalom.
Shalom is a state of existence. It is a state of being that is completely self-contained. It is not based on outside circumstances. Shalom is a state of inner peace. It is, in fact, our attachment to peace through outward circumstances that hinders Shalom.
This is what the 16th century spiritual master and Jesuit priest, Ignatius, called disordered attachment. What we attach our peace to will produce the measure of peace we have. If we attempt to produce peace through the absence of conflict in the external world, we will experience peace sporadically. Then, we will also find that we must be in certain places to achieve peace, and must avoid certain spaces which prevent our sense of external peace. What stillness seeks is the reality of a peace that remains inwardly even when it is not manifest in outwardly. It’s why Jesus talked about a different kind of peace than the kind found in the external world, a peace that could transcend the troubles of the world without removing us from a troubled world.
Jesus taught about a peace for the here-and-now, not some far removed state only available in heaven. Jesus' kind of peace was internal, consistent, and stronger than the external effects of a peace-deprived world because it was based on being, not doing. Shalom grounds us in our being in a way that can’t be shaken by the experience of a dysfunctional, disturbed, and broken world. But how does stillness help us achieve that internal space of Shalom?
To a mind overburdened by too many unanswerable questions, silence is the best response. What Shalom offers is something more than answers to questions, or solutions to problems. It offers a space where we can find rest for our souls even when nothing makes sense, and nothing seems to be going the way we want.
Life is full of conundrum and paradox. Life is full of disappointment and unmet expectations. There is a place in our hearts where peace and contentment can exist independent of all of that, where we know who we are and who is holding us, no matter what's going on in the world around us.
The idea of external fulfillment is a poor and inconsistent foundation for happiness, security, and peace. There’s nothing wrong with wanting external things. Everything God has made is good. But there is something inherently unstable about building the foundation of our contentment on things that come and go. When we do that, our contentment and peace come and go with them. Isn’t that what we see in our lives, and the world at large.
When people do not have what they want, they are dissatisfied and down. When people do have what they want, they are fearful and anxious that they might lose it. But when we build our lives on things that last, we need never be dissatisfied or anxious.
Jesus talked about this kind of abundant life. He said it was a like a well spring that never ran dry, or a house built on a large, immovable rock. This is a life of peace and contentment built on the inner reality of being, centered on the cultivation of inner stillness.
Stillness is something we must be continually moving towards.
No matter how close we get to it, it can increase or decrease based on our daily practice of it. It’s not a one time purchase we make. It’s a spiritual journey we take towards greater connectedness to God.
God is the source of peace. The closer we grow in relationship to God, through stillness, the more we will experience peace. God lives in that space of Shalom, and brings that Shalom to us every day, right where we are. The more we move into that space with God, and surrender to the reality of who God is, the more we will experience his reality of all things as they ought to be.
The givenness of God's peace isn't something we have to earn, achieve, or be good enough to get. We don’t have to convince God to give us what is good. No good father or mother loves their children only when they are acting appropriately. Likewise, the love of our heavenly Father is always flowing to us. But we do have to stop running in the opposite direction, settle down where we are, and let it come to us. This is hard to grasp.
It’s hard to imagine getting anything we did not work for. The world we live in is designed to work only as we work for it. But remember, that is a world distorted by the dysfunction of our own pursuit of fulfillment in external things. When we become the makers of meaning and purpose, we automatically default on God’s reality in favor of our own. Our human born reality is unstable, always in danger of falling apart if we do not maintain it. Everything God makes is self-renewing. But it’s hard for us, having grown up largely in a human-born world, to transition to a world where everything is given by God. That’s why the practice of stillness is important, because it begins where our efforts end, with the recognition that we can do nothing to get what God has for us.
Jesus once told the religious rulers of his day that the worst “sinners” were getting into God’s kingdom ahead of them. What Jesus was talking about those caught up in a system of good works and right rules who were unable to receive what God had freely, without working for it. We can't earn what God has to give. While that may be hard the works-based religious to hear, it's good news for everyone who knows they can’t earn what God has to give.
Stillness is the process of letting go of our good efforts and learning to simply receive everything from God which is already ours. But it requires we stop trying to get what we think we want, in order to receive what God knows is good for us. That’s why surrender is important.
Surrender means we give up, not only trying to be good or get good things, but that we also accept whatever comes to us as from God, even the struggle and pain.
When we trust in the reality that God is always flowing to us, we can give up and learn to submit to all things, even when they don’t feel good. Suffering is essential to burn away the cause of our suffering, which is this self-reliant, self-referential system of remaking the world according to our individual preferences. The ego-self must die in the process of learning to surrender to God, and that will not feel good. Therefore, we must learn to accept that the way to this greater peace is paved by the ashes of our ego burning away, piece by piece.
Our ego must suffer a million defeats, insults, and injuries to see just how destructive and divisive it is, in order to get to the place where we are ready to learn how to be still before God. Any effort of our own, towards what we see as good, will always be a countermovement away from God. We will often see feeding the ego as good. God knows that killing the ego is truly good. So, until we are ready to sit still and endure the death of what is killing us, we will continue to run in the opposite direction of the painful path that leads to Shalom.
In order to reconnect to God, we must learn to get away and get quiet enough to see, hear, taste, and feel the deeper energy which is already oversaturating the world all around us. It’s already in us. There is nothing we need do to earn it. But we do need to learn how to cooperate with it. To do that, we need to begin to learn what this God energy is like. The space we create for that learning is stillness.