“The very best and highest attainment in this life is to remain still and let God act and speak in you.”
(Meister Eckhart, 13th-century German Dominican priest and mystic)
I’m involved in some personal discernment about my life’s mission. Frankly, it is proving much more challenging than I initially expected. The world is so noisy, both inside and outside my head, that the distractions often overwhelm the discernment.
That means listening carefully to His words and direction. That means shutting up and shutting off, gaining what St. John of the Cross called “stillness of soul” in Jesus.
Thank God it’s time for my annual Lenten fast from noise.
Fasting from Distraction
Generally, fasting involves refraining from eating food for a specific period of time. In the Church, fasting once involved eating only bread and water, and doing so for spiritual purposes; now, the Church advises one normal-sized meal and two smaller meals daily. Both can achieve the same end: a deeper prayer life.
Tobit 12:8 says that “prayer with fasting is good.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraph 2043, states that fasting and abstinence “help us to acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.” In the Acts of the Apostles, we learn the apostles frequently fasted when facing important decisions.
Fasting is closely tied to Lent, in part because Jesus engaged in fasting during his 40-day desert retreat that directly preceded the beginning of his public ministry. Going without food must have been a challenge even for Jesus (who, being fully human, would naturally hunger and thirst), since Satan’s temptations included turning stones into bread.
But fasting need not involve food. It doesn’t have to be relegated to meals on Lenten Fridays or to sweets throughout the 40-day penitential season. Any time we deny our bodies something we normally enjoy, that allows us to focus more intimately on God. The sacrifice gives us a chance to enhance and deepen our spiritual life, especially our time of prayer and study.
Making Space for God’s Voice
Most of us are pretty good at reciting vocal prayer, asking God for things, even just chatting with Him. But when it comes to hearing His voice, discerning what He wants to communicate to us, listening to His half of the conversation, we often don’t hold up our end.
You can plan to say “Here I am.” But if you aren’t actually able to hear His voice amid the cacophony of the world, that willingness means quite a bit less.
So every Lent, I put mufflers on the world. When I’m in my car, I turn off the radio. No sports talk. No “traffic and weather on the 10s.” Not even Catholic radio or contemporary Christian music. I keep the CDs in the glove compartment. No Allman Brothers or Sinatra or Rich Mullins. You can try the same. You might fill the time with saying the rosary, singing, offering prayers for the people driving around you. But mostly, just drive in silence. Be quiet. Find what friends and family come to mind and listen to what God tells you about them. Think of situations in life and consider the Holy Spirit’s guidance and advice.
There is noise to be silenced at home, too. Perhaps you can try a little of what I have in the past. You don’t have to unplug the TV. Just don’t watch the local news at 10 o’clock or the late-night talk shows that follow. List out the shows you consider “must-see TV,” then pledge to not watch a fourth of them. Cut back on text-messaging and time spent on Facebook, as well as other social media.
Finding God in the Silence
You can fill some of that time with “holy interaction.” I will spend more time reading Scripture, along with some short stories by Flannery O’Connor, who was Catholic, and a couple of Henri Nouwen books. I’m going to try to recapture the lost art of letter-writing, as I deliver some long-overdue thanks to some people through whom God has blessed me.
Mainly, I will be quiet, because holy listening generally requires holy silence. Externally and internally. From past experience, I have learned that in holy silence, there resides God.
“In the silence of the heart, God speaks,” St. Teresa of Calcutta said. “If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself. Souls of prayer are souls of great silence.”
So for this Lent, I’m going to give up French fries. I’m going to communicate with some people to whom I need to say “I love you.” And I’m going to live in greater silence.
There’s a good chance that, in the midst of that silence, I will hear God whisper “I love you” as well.