In our two stories today from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus begins his ministry by calling his first four disciples and calling out a demon. The disciples as well as demons obeyed him. The community that composed Mark’s gospel wanted readers to see Jesus authoritatively. In fact, the word translated as authority is used twice in this passage. But what kind of authority did he possess?
Marcus Borg, God rest his soul, argued that Jesus’s authority was based on a personal experience with the divine. Borg, who died last week and who contributed much to progressive Christian thought, categorized Jesus as, among other things, a “Spirit Person” in Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. For Spirit Persons, God is not “an article of belief” but “an experiential reality” (38). Borg says that Jesus’ practices of prayer and fasting seem consistent with a “form of contemplation or meditation” used by other Jewish spiritual leaders at that time who “would still their hearts before God before they would heal” and would do so using a wordless meditation that we might associate mainly with Far Eastern traditions (35). Like other Spirit Persons, Jesus evinced a love of God and an intimacy with God (calling God “Abba”) and spoke with authority (36) coming from his own personal experience rather from other authorities. Today’s scripture says that his authority was not like the scribes, who merely cited scripture. Jesus was a compelling figure because at the center of his life was a sense of God’s presence. Jesus did not simply believe in God; he spoke as one who knew God (37). That was the source of his authority.
If we want to follow the Jesus who is the Spirit Person, we may be required need to commit to his spiritual practices and, in so doing, fall in love with God. The Prophetic Jesus will cause us to speak truth to power; the Nonviolent Jesus will lead us in paths of peace. Jesus the Sage will teach us deep wisdom. Jesus the Healer will instruct us to heal our communities. But if we are following Jesus the Spirit Person, we will know sweet intimacy with a reality bigger than the one we perceive with our five senses or can parse with human language or quantify with human measurements. We will yearn for some Immensity we can’t name but of which we feel a part.
Here’s a sad confession for a pastor: it’s easier for me to follow Jesus by actions “out there” than quiet stillness “in here.” I’m a talker and a doer.
But at the heart of today’s story is Jesus’ command to “be silent” (Mark 1:25). Those words made a beeline to me this week. Jesus’s call for silence reminded me I am letting other spirits—the rowdy spirits of frenzy, impatience, distraction, worry, self-sufficiency—invade my life and unsettle me.
Does anyone else experience this discordant state of mind and spirit? For instance, does your mind replay tomorrow’s to-do list as soon as your head hits the pillow at night? Do you catch yourself listening to a loved one without really hearing her heart? Do you multitask yourself into multiple mistakes? Do your children hear the word “hurry” more often than they hear “Let’s listen to that bird’s song”? Do you have to have a music track for your daily life? Are you checking your smart phone during dinner or at meetings? Do you forget how easy it is—and helpful—to take a long walk or to take a few deep breaths? Are you able to tune out the strident voices around you and tune in to the voice of peace? Are you making time for the spiritual practice of quiet?
If you and I are serious about following Jesus and coming to love God will all our heart, soul, and mind, we need to learn how to silence the internal cacophony. There is a silent place within where we can attain, as Jesus did, an imperturbable sense of oneness with the One.
Which brings me to a story told by Martin Laird in his book Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation. He talks about the ongoing “chatter” that goes on in our minds. Some of this internal chatter is necessary and good, but a running commentary prevents a mindfulness of the present moment and can distort our experience of reality or keep us stuck in one perception of that reality. He tells this story about a woman named Elizabeth:
Elizabeth was one of the world’s authorities on irises. As an academic botanist she knew everything there was to know about rhizomes. When she wasn’t in her lab—a large greenhouse that took up most of her back garden—she was writing up her research or attending conferences. But the onset of a rare, autoimmune disease brought all her activity to an abrupt halt. The illness left her with intense pain and bedridden much of the time. Medication had little effect. Most days she could manage but a short walk in her garden and greenhouse to inspect the irises.
Elizabeth’s pain was simply there. But her active mind could not let the pain be. Her mind would pick at it, lance it, scratch at it: “Why did this have to happen?” “Who is going to take care of me?” “How can I pay for this?” There were times of the day when the pain would intensify, and her thoughts ran: “Wouldn’t it be better to die,” “I don’t want to be a burden to others,” or “Why is God punishing me?” . . . . She said, “My thoughts are like a pack of hyena. They make the pain unbearable.”
Elizabeth was familiar with contemplative practices but said it had been “more or less limited to airports, train journeys and enduring tedious sermons.” With the onset of this illness, however, her spiritual well-being became more of a concern to her, and so she established a regular discipline spaced through each day. . . .
Her rediscovery of prayer bore fruit not only in a deepened awareness of God’s abiding presence but also she became skilled at seeing how the drama of the commenting mind adds to suffering. As a result she discovered several important things about pain.
Thoughts about pain are worse than pain by itself. “Suffering is what your mind does with your pain,” she said. “A silent mind knows no suffering.” Trying to push pain away increases suffering. In her case there was no question of pain going away. But suffering she could do something about. If she could be still before the pain and not wrestle with it, she felt alive and aware. Gradually she was able to let go of the demand that the pain be gone, if it didn’t happen to be gone.
By learning simply to be still before pain, she learned to see into pain. Pain has a center. This center is silence. When her attention was not stolen by thoughts about the pain, she could be still before this silent center. In this silent center she felt closest to God, so she would go back there whenever she could. It was not long after this discovery that she had the breakthrough of her life. . . .
What brought definitive change for the remaining time before her death was the realization that in this very silence there was communion with all people, a loving solidarity with all humanity [and we might add all creatures]. The awareness of this was seamlessly united with her awareness of God. This realization expressed itself—even while bedridden—as self-forgetful, loving attentiveness to all whom she met. . . . The more she was able to surrender to this loving silence at the center of her pain, the more she was a vehicle of this loving silence.
Medical writer Steven Levine observe “true healing happens when we go into our pain so deeply that we see it, not just as our pain, but everyone’s pain. It is immensely moving and supportive to discover that my pain is not private to me.” This is precisely what Elizabeth discovered. If she could be silent within herself, in the midst of her pain, and not get caught up in the commenting on the pain, she saw her isolation vanish and what she found, even in the midst of this pain, was communion with all people in the silence of God. . . .
Not long before Elizabeth died, she was talking about how she missed her life as a botanist, about the unfinished projects that would remain unfinished. She said, “You know, while I’ve been ill I have managed to discover something new about irises—I never knew they were beautiful." (Laird 107-110).
I experienced this week the consequences of listening to internal commentary on pain when I should have been still before the pain. As soon as I did a face plant onto the concrete sidewalk last Thursday while walking my dog, I knew I’d broken my wrist. Instantly my mind raced with worrisome questions: Who would play the piano for Open Table? Would George have to cancel a trip to St. Louis for the college? Why did it have to be my RIGHT hand? If I have to have a cast, how long will I have to wear it? Will I be able to drive? Use my laptop? Shower? Cook? By the time we made it to the Urgent Care office, a long list of worst case scenarios were swirling in my head. When the nurse took my blood pressure, which is always very low, it registered very high. When I remarked on how unusually high it was, she told me that pain can raise blood pressure. But I was pretty sure worry was at least partly to blame. I was letting the commentary of my mind prevent me from being in the moment. I was going beyond the experience of pain to the experience of suffering.
Today I still have some pain. But I no longer am suffering through this experience.
Thomas Merton, Trappist monk, author, and contemplative put it this way: “The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.”
Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of Merton’s birth. I share one more pearl from him: “To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of our times.”
Friends, we can encourage one another not to commit ourselves to too many projects for our own spiritual health and for the health of our faith community. Let us practice silence. Even in this moment.
O Christ, when we hear you shout “Silence” in the synagogue, let us grow still and quiet.
Borg, Marcus. Meeting Jesus AGAIN for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995.
Laird, Martin. Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.