In a recent New York Times opinion article entitle “The Joy of Quiet”, the well-known author Pico Iyer reflected on one of the deep ironies of our 3G, wi-fi, smart-phone, text-messaging uber-connected age. It is that within the rise of our always-in-touch age, there is a new market emerging–”black-hole resorts,” which charge higher rates for the inability to access the internet. Iyer cites the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, California, charging $2,285 a night for the room that doesn’t have a TV in it. He writes, “In barely one generation we’ve moved from exulting in the time-saving devices that have so expanded our lives to trying to get away from them — often in order to make more time. The more ways we have to connect, the more many of us seem desperate to unplug.”
The rest of the article goes on to celebrate the joys of stillness, and advocates for more quiet. Throughout, there are many stories and statistics of our culture that is too plugged in and wired up (or wireless), and many good quotes and insights about the regenerative, clarifying nature of not having nearly so much noise around us. One of my favorites that Iyer quotes is from Blaise Pascal, along the lines that “all of man’s problems come from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone”.
Perhaps that line jumped at me because of a recent comment a friend made when he visited Corhaven, our home and place for retreat in the Shenandoah Valley. Sitting in the rocking chair in the little, 12’x15′ guest cottage that people use for retreats while here, he said, “Well, there’s no way I could sit here by myself all day! What would I do?”
Our place sometimes has that effect on people when they first arrive for a day or overnight retreat, and step into the stillness. Many of them remark proudly that they’ve left their cell-phone in the car. Others are relieved to find we have wi-fi that reaches the cottage. In almost every case, however, it’s remarkable at how God meets his own in the quiet. Almost everyone who comes out here seems to meet God in a meaningful way.
And I don’t think it has that much to do with our space, as much as it has to with people making space for God, a space he’s glad to fill. Everyone who comes gets a little welcome note from me that reads, “Any attempt to seek him is honored by him, and inasmuch as you’re making the effort to spend time with him, know that God is delighted to spend time with you.” All it takes is the commitment to make the time happen, putting it on the calendar, then coming and braving the formidable quiet until we realize that it’s actually a most hallowed place of being with God, indeed simply alone, and yet hardly alone.
Iyer concludes his reflection, again with a certain irony, in a Benedictine hermitage that he visits at least several times a year. It’s ironic in that while there he does nothing ‘spiritual’, and even then the simple act of being still for a little while touches him, and makes him better. “I just take walks and read and lose myself in the stillness, recalling that it’s only by stepping briefly away from my wife and bosses and friends that I’ll have anything useful to bring to them.”
Those are the sorts of things folks do when they come to Corhaven, with the addition (usually) of quite a bit of prayer too, quite a bit of conversation with God. Stillness is not all silence, quiet does not mean the absence of a Voice. Usually, it’s the way we actually can hear it.
Vocation, calling….these are words we throw around a lot. They imply there is One who calls, one who speaks, and the way we hear that One is to listen. Calling is a two way street. We’re grateful to provide a place at Corhaven where people can not only be quiet, but even more importantly listen.
For all the wonderful things in his article, Pico Iyer would have done better to let Mother Teresa do a little talking as well, and maybe even have the last word. I’ll let her: “In the silence of the heart God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you… Listening is the beginning of prayer.”
Rev. Bill Haley is the former Director of Formation at The Washington Institute and Associate rector at The Falls Church in Falls Church, Virginia.