A dear friend made very helpful comments in response to Where to start?. He deserves a reply, and I am going to devote a few pieces to this.

Here’s how he opens:

As a person who finds it hard to sit still
finds it hard to be quiet
is suspicious of the notion of a ‘spiritual’ realm
has long struggled to pray with any sense of integrity
repeatedly stumbled over the commonly held understanding of prayer as something verbal,
in short, is prey to all the distractions that you outline in your first paragraph (and some more besides)…
I find the place from which you start a hopeful and encouraging place, and would want to read on.
However, (and I own that this may well be to with my own retarded-ness in this area) I have a sense of going forward a fraction too quickly, and that what for you is plain sailing, may be a bit more difficult for me, and maybe others too.

What a gift! I will start here.

There is no special virtue in the ability to sit still or be quiet. It can be valuable, but it does not indicate that we are better, more ‘spiritual’, people. Many do not or cannot sit still and be quiet. Perhaps this is not everyone’s way, or character.

This is worth saying loud and clear. Much writing on spirituality is by introverts who like stillness and quiet; I am one of them. We thrive with it and wither without it. While introverts are an oppressed minority in the population at large, in spirituality extraverts are the un-catered-for minority and will say they are unable to pray or pray properly. Deeper investigation uncovers just as much prayer and depth of connection with God, but not expressed in the introvert’s 3 S’s of spirituality: solitude, stillness and silence.

Having said that, it is also true that everyone finds it hard to sit still, at least at times. The problem with stopping the headlong rush of our lives is that we are left with nothing but ourselves: the 10,000 distractions; “the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”; the “sighs for folly done and said”; our anxieties, fears and guilts, hurts and pains; mortality. I addressed this, a little tongue-in-cheek, in Reasons not to pray: 1, 2, 3.

To sit quietly is not to step into an ethereal peaceful realm. It is the place of no escape. When we practice the 3 S’s, hoping to come home to ourselves-and-God, we also leave an emptiness into which these difficulties drop. The ‘door of the temple’ is guarded by angels whose graceful messages to us are painfully unwelcome. Sometimes these messages are straightforward: each pain is waiting for healing; each guilt is in need of forgiveness and repentance; each fear is the shadow of deeper engagement with life. At other times these messages are more complex: misplaced guilt for events that were not in truth our fault; feelings of inadequacy that divert us from the truth of our greatness; boredom; the gods which are not God.

In welcoming these messages we also recognise there is work to be done, what in a certain language is called the work of redemption. This is why the messages are gifts, albeit uncomfortable, discomfiting ones.

I must say, of course, that the 3 S’s can be a delight. It is how we can gather back to into ourselves all the amoeboid feelers of the self reaching out to address our daily concerns, or sent out to meet the expectations of others. Without this gathering back, how can we ever know who we are, what we want, what life asks of us? Anyone I have ever read on creativity says that this silence is necessary for a new creature to emerge:

… the inherently indescribably creative silence that sometimes visits us when we make ourselves available to it … [O]ur part in this process is very simple: we have to set aside and fiercely guard regular periods of empty time, time when we are not obligated or promised to anyone, any event or task or occasion, time when we allow ourselves to wander and follow the impulse of the moment. … The quality of empty moments [between inhale and exhale] is that of an instance out of time, a moment of simply being.

In a culture where few recognise the usefulness of empty time, where a person’s worth is often seen as inversely proportional to the number of blank spaces in the day timer, we may have to devise strategies to ensure that misguided ambitions within or around us do not take over and put all our time to so-called productive use.

Oriah Mountain Dreamer, What We Ache For, p.131

Even God is said to begin it all from here.

So, where to start?

I wonder if there are better questions to ask than to feel guilty and worry about whether and how we can sit still and be quiet.

  • Do you want to sit quietly? Is it your way?
    If not, just be honest about this and do something else. Get on with living.
    If you do, then take a look at your life.
  • When do you naturally find you are able to be still and quiet?
    (After exercise; listening to music; digging the garden, pulling the weeds; doing the dishes(!); writing a poem; reading a book in bed at the end of the day; with the first cup of tea in the morning; or the first glass of wine after work; tucking the children up in bed; or when the children are asleep and the house settles down; in the bath; on the toilet…?)

Whatever, wherever, whenever, however: start there.

3 thoughts on “Sit!

  1. Hi Julian

    I found your ‘This Body’ blog a couple of weeks ago and signed up to it. It’s good! I’m finding it really helpful.

    In the light of the comment you’re responding to in your most recent entry, I have wondered for sometime about the Psalm 46 injunction to “be still and know that I am God”. If that is some kind of call, invitation to all, rather than just to introverts who love the 3 Ss, and find ‘stillness’ easy to come by, then it may be helpful to look further into the whole notion of what ‘being still’ might mean when translated into our culture and time frame? It’s one of those notions we think we know what it means, but we inevitably translate it using our inbuilt ‘filters’ of experience, preferences and temperament.

    Questions like “what is stillness in the midst…?”, “how does ‘inner stillness’ relate to stillness of the body?” Come to mind ….



    1. Still interested in your thoughts about and experience of stillness.
      One of the things extraverts seem to like is walking. I have heard some folk say that they pray with much greater clarity when walking. I am not a great walker but I know that if I walk for the pleasure of it, rather than to get somewhere, then after a time I enter into a different mental state much more akin to ‘stillness’.
      What’s your experience?

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