Some Time Still

Many thanks again, both to Kelly Belmonte for prodding me to guest post, and to Holly Ordway for indefatigable help in editing a half a dozen drafts of this!

Some Time Still

Emily Dickinson says:

The soul selects her own society,
Then shuts the door;
On her divine majority
Obtrude no more.

Unmoved, she notes the chariot’s pausing
At her low gate;
Unmoved, an emperor is kneeling
Upon her mat.

I’ve known her from an ample nation
Choose one;
Then close the valves of her attention
Like stone.

Let’s spend a few moments thinking about just those first seventeen words (and by the way, “obtrude” means to thrust forwards, to force oneself upon others unasked): The soul selects her own society, / Then shuts the door; / On her divine majority / Obtrude no more.

Though it may prove the height of hypocrisy for a man like me to say it, I suggest that we need to pull the plug, and on a much more regular basis. I know I do. Smartphone, iPad, two screens at work, two screens at home, laptop, radio, car radio, TV monitors everywhere—each grocery store and restaurant and airport terminal or almost anywhere I go. Input. Noise. Language and image and sound.

It’d be easy to dismissively wave it all off and long for the olden days, to lament the news (or the rumor mill passing for it these days), to sigh for a quieter time.

I suggest, in spite of all this, a very mild form of asceticism. Seek silence. On a regular basis. Or, if we cannot bring ourselves to that, at least let us notice the small pockets of silence offered to us, even in this busy world. Turn off the TV or the radio in the morning. Most of us can do very little indeed about Syria or the upcoming elections. Everyone I know feels whirled round by how much remains yet to do at the end of a too-long day.

Maybe we need, as Emily says, to shut the door, to allow nothing to obtrude. I don’t really know what she means about “divine majority” of the soul, but to me I always assume it means those minutes when I quiet myself and acknowledge God here with me. And then nothing else matters.

So let’s greedily seize silence, craft quietness, carve out a few moments to hear nothing more than our own good selves breathing. Just for tomorrow, don’t sing in the shower, don’t go for the on switch, or at least without thinking. And perhaps let us practice a mindfulness of this little moment, just for ten seconds to push back and draw breath and close up the shop of our eyes and their eagerness, and softly, for a beat or two, dwell on our own “divine majority.”

God may slip in like the wind or like water. He might fill up the silence we craft when we try for this moment to shut up the eyes of our heads, that we might for a minute pry open the ears of our hearts. Michael Card once remarked that the silence of prayer is God straining to hear us; perhaps we can strain toward Him too with nothing on our lips, nothing in our ears. To me this means that I “select my own society,” that I choose the company of only the Maker and myself. And shut the door on all else.

In The Way of the Heart, his wonderful little book about the Desert Fathers, Fr. Henri Nouwen reminds us that “silence is the mystery of the future world. It keeps us pilgrims and prevents us from becoming entangled in the cares of this age. It guards the fire of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.  It allows us to speak a word that participates in the creative and recreative power of God’s own Word.”

He’s right, at least in my own poor experience. Abba Arsenius redemptively, wryly challenges  us: “I have often repented of having spoken, but never of having remained silent.” Ironically enough, instead of practicing this great wisdom of the sealed lips and the sanctified inner fire, I have blabbed these quotes to dozens of acquaintances over the years. But this day is not yet done, and there remains unto us some time still to unplug, to acknowledge, to invite God Himself to speak into a silence we may yet today even help to create. C. S. Lewis steers us well here, away from “the coinage of [our] own unquiet thoughts.” Lewis implores the Spirit, who groans too deeply for words: “From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee, / O thou fair silence fall, and set me free.”

It’s Easter. Certainly sing out, and greet people with the greatest of news, that Christ is risen indeed. But maybe this week we might find in a moment the grace to push back, to unplug, to “shut the door.” We mindfully might yet seize onto some unassigned minute and listen as deeply as this jarring world will allow, to the silence. To the wind. To Emily’s “divine majority,” here in this room, alone with the one Word that this whole world hangs on.


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