On a lazy Saturday morning I sit on the grass and watch my son pick daisies. He’s quiet and busy for at least a half an hour, searching out blooms and constructing something with them in a bald patch between a couple of oak trees.
The field we’re lolling around in approximates wildness as nearly as possible in the city. More people live in our neighborhood than in the state of Idaho, so it’s not easy to find wide-open spaces. But in this moment, we come close to feeling that freedom and expansiveness that comes from being in nature.
I keep watching him.
He crouches in the clumps of dandelions intent on finding another daisy. He goes off in search of another rock a little larger than the last one he found. He squints in the glare of the sun and kicks up dust on a sandy path. He’s relaxed. Curious. Content.
He’s gazing and creating. He’s attentive and purposeful.
Quiet creativity. Productive silence—this is the sweet spot.
Order and Beauty and Andy Goldsworthy
Watching my son, I’m reminded of the way artist Andy Goldsworthy works in the environment, using natural objects he finds on location. He meticulously crafts pieces made of the most commonplace objects— stones, leaves, branches, thorns, ice, clay and sand.
Goldsworthy’s work may be ephemeral, but it’s not chaotic. His installations defy the possibility that they were the result of chance, freaks of nature, the consequence of a million gusts of wind, shifts of the earth’s surface, the ebb and flow of the tides.
Describing a small abstract stone sculpture at the base of a waterfall, Deborah Soloman, writing for The New York Times Magazine, marvels,
“As Goldsworthy set up his Nikon on a tripod and photographed the work, I admired its tightly constructed, almost woven appearance. If nature were orderly, it momentarily seemed, the whole world would look like this.”
The meaning of the Hebrew word, “tob,” translated “good,” is fluid in the Old Testament, evoking that which is “aesthetically beautiful, morally righteous, of superior quality or ultimate value.” Goldsworthy’s works demonstrate this rich definition of goodness in their exquisite beauty—a beauty born of symmetry of form, brilliant saturated hues, delicate meandering lines, and careful execution. The integration of the organic with the symmetrical energizes his art.
An Organic and Ordered Life
I want my thought life, spiritual life and creative life to be organic and ordered. Sounds like a contradiction, I know. Mostly I feel I live too many hours in a state of distracted confusion.
I could blame the city. Apart from my apartment interior, every space is public space, which means most space is noisy space. I could blame the fact that I share a small apartment with four other humans. Like most moms, I’m usually negotiating a barrage of near constant interruption.
But the noise isn’t just exterior; it’s interior too—and I know that’s the main source of the problem.
I have to own the interior noise. I read a page; then check my phone. I crack a book; then get up to put the laundry in the dryer. I think about praying; then put on the kettle for a cup of tea. I start a sentence; then lose my train of thought.
My eyes flit across the surfaces of things, as if I’m rushing around glancing at scattered pieces of a puzzle without the attention to start finding connections, much less meaning.
Crushing garlic cloves for the Bolognese sauce simmering on the stove, I realize that so much of what I do is essential activity that keeps our home humming. I can’t stop doing these things that make our life together work, but I don’t want to feel so fragmented at the end of the day. I need a still, silent center for my soul.
I get up at 5:30 a.m. I’m not by nature, nurture or desire an early riser, but I’ve been dying for a sliver of quiet.
I open my Bible to Psalm 62:
For God alone my soul waits in silence;
from him comes my salvation.
He only is my rock and my salvation,
My fortress, I shall not be greatly shaken. (ESV)
There are so many things that can shake me through the day. A sick child, lost keys, disappointments at work, Nutella smeared on the couch cushions, a leaky pipe that’s flooding my downstairs neighbor’s bedroom, a misunderstanding with a friend, terror threats, gridlocked traffic—real situations that add up to a noisy, fragmented day and a restless soul.
Attentive Rest in the Noise of a Normal Day
The silence the Psalmist is talking about is not akin to bored waiting; it is more like attentive resting. The NIV highlights this dimension of the phrase, translating the first verse, “Truly my soul finds rest in God.”
Silent waiting can become synonymous with resting when we trust the character of the One we’re waiting to hear from. This is waiting that involves gazing, maybe even creating.
Some Christian monastic communities considered quiet in the presence of God so essential to devotion and discipleship that they took a vow of silence. Apart from the music of the liturgy, Cluniac monasteries were bathed in meditative silence. In order to get things done without breaking their vow, Cluniac monks pioneered a system of sign language, an approach adopted later by monastic orders like the Benedictines and Cistercians.
I imagine imposing a similar system in my home. I know it’s impossible and crazy, not least because I so love the music of my kid’s laughter.
There’s noise that’s distracting, but then there’s noise that’s joy inducing. While I often crave silence, I know I wouldn’t want to stifle the fun of conversation in my home for long.
Remembering Micah playing in the grass, I realize that rest doesn’t always have to imply absence of motion. He wasn’t still, but he was content. He was resting in motion.
That’s what I need to learn. I need to learn how to wait in silence while caught up in the motion of the day.
In his marvelous study, Silence: A Christian History, Diarmaid MacCulloch notes that, “from the beginning, silence and contemplation were constructed in the midst of ordinary society as much as in solitude.”
I love the way Eugene Peterson renders the first two verses of this Psalm in The Message,
God, the one and only—
I’ll wait as long as he says.
Everything I need comes from him,
so why not?
He’s solid rock under my feet,
breathing room for my soul
Breathing room for my soul. Slivers of quiet through the day when I meet God while wiping down the counter, or folding the piles of laundry, or driving to work have the potential to create breathing room for my soul if I approach them in the right frame of mind and heart.
The silence the Psalmist longs for isn’t external; it’s internal.
I don’t want to live in forced quiet. I want to live in the midst of noise with a soul that is attentive to what God is saying through other voices, experiences, interruptions and frustrations.
I can’t still the turning of the world; but I do have some control over the degree to which my mind and soul are carried along with it.
Cultivating Rest for Your Soul
Here are a few things I’m trying in order to cultivate internal stillness. I don’t mean to suggest for a moment that I’ve arrived. This is very much an active struggle.
- Adjust my expectations: Rather than look for long blocks of quiet time, I’m trying to appreciate slivers of silence. Having two hours to be still and read, meditate and pray sounds exquisite, but it’s totally unrealistic. Some days ten minute breaks scattered through the routine of the day will have to do.
- Be more discerning about the noise I can control: For instance, I’ve started to drive to work in silence—no radio, no music, no podcast—to open up some space to talk with God and to think about my life and the people in it.
- Intentionally plan to be outdoors in nature whenever possible: Time spent in green space is some of the most restful time I have with my kids. It’s not always silent time, but it is (usually) a restorative experience. I find I look and listen to them and to God better when we get out of the house and off the asphalt.
I’d love to know what you guys would add to this very short list.
How do you cultivate an attentive, quiet spirit in the context of a chaotic day?
Looking for more inspiration?
Rivers and Tides: The film documenting Andy Goldsworthy’s way of working in the environment is gorgeous and inspirational. My kids even loved watching it. The trailer is up on YouTube or you can find the complete film on iTunes or Amazon.
If you’d like to know more about the complexity of the Christian relationship with silence through the centuries, you might like Diarmaid MacCullough’s brilliant book, Silence: A Christian History.
Copyright © 2016 · All Rights Reserved · Tina Boesch