The Daily Bread of Silence
Psalm 46 and Luke 4:1 – Lent 2
What goes on your daily bread list?
Praying as Jesus taught us to, we ask God to “give us today our daily bread.” Surely that means actual bread, physical sustenance, the simplest most ordinary food in cultures around the world. Plain old bread.
But when we pray to ask for what it takes to make it through the day, we usually ask for more than bread, don’t we? Even in a simplified, humble life, we need more than bread each day. So what goes on your daily bread list? The things you have to have to make it through to the next day?
Just having stepped into the season of Lent this past week, we’ve traveled with Jesus from his baptism in the Jordan, and full of the Spirit straight out to the desert for 40 days of fasting and solitude. The very first thing he does with his baptismal call is to spend some time alone.
I’ve been thinking about solitude and silence lately and I’ve been craving it, trying to make room for more of it in my day. It hasn’t always been my first instinct.
When I was one year out of college, working in the southwestern tip of the state, for a non-profit housing organization called the Appalachia Service Project, my staff decided to go on a road trip together. It was the end of the summer and we had a week of comp time to use. So Otis and I, who had been working together for a year, decided to go on a get-to-know-you trip with our new co-worker Tom. This was not your run of the mill road trip. We were young and energetic and stupid enough to think that a week long car trip from Jonesville, Virginia, to Lubbock, Texas, to the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, and back to Jonesville would be “fun.”
I should mention here that while Otis and I knew each other and while Otis and Tom knew each other, Tom and I met for the first time about 24 hours before this trip.
I should also mention that we took Tom’s car, which was a Toyota Corolla that ended up having serious alternator issues in the middle of Mississippi in the middle of the night. It was a small car; it was a smelly car. The police officer who stopped to help us took a single look at us and asked, “Y’all in some kind of a band?” But that’s a whole other story. I mention the car because it was small – you might even say intimate – and there was no way to escape one another unless you somehow managed to sleep for a while. Which is precisely what Otis did a mere hour into the trip.
I should probably further mention that at that time, I had a tendency to talk ceaselessly when I was nervous. The more nervous I was the more I babbled. This particular tendency would be accentuated in the presence of shy, quiet people. You may be able to hazard a guess about now as to what type of person Tom is. You’d be right.
So, as Otis dozed off in the back seat somewhere around Johnson City, Tennessee, I was in the passenger seat up front trying to get to know the quietest human I had met up to that point in my life. And that made me a little nervous. As any rational, nerve-wracked person in my place would have, I began to talk. Nonstop. About anything I could think of. I had a desperate need to fill every bit of silence coming from the driver’s seat and Tom, of course, was all too obliging. The more I talked, the quieter he was, which propelled me to keep on talking. I’m not sure if he got a word in before Arkansas.
I’ve gotten better about this over time but sometimes I still notice the urge to fill up the silence with words. I’ve also begun to notice how different various experiences of silence can be. Back then, I was anxious and felt awkward in the silence with an unfamiliar person. By now, I’ve shared deep satisfying silence in hospital rooms at the bedsides of people I have just met.
We live in a culture that tries to overlay all silence with sounds, words, images, spectacle, and sometimes just noise. But I suspect we’ve all experienced some profound and beautiful silences along the way. The silence and stillness in the night once the baby you are holding has finally gone to sleep. The sound-filled silence of the woods at night when you are camped out under the stars. The silent look exchanged with someone so close to you that words are beside the point.
So why do we spend so much energy keeping silence at bay?
Each year we begin the Lenten journey with this same story of Jesus heading out into the wilderness to pray alone for 40 days. Every year Jesus – and us along with him – enter Lent in the silence of the wilderness. And it’s not the only time Jesus does this. When we take a closer look, it’s clear that he makes use of just about any opportunity he has to step out of the fray and sit alone in deserted places.
In just the first 11 chapters of Luke’s gospel he does this at least seven times. “At daybreak he departed and went into a deserted place…But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray…Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God…Once when Jesus was praying alone…(Luke 4:42, 5:16, 6:12, 9: 18; also 9:28, 11:1). Silence and solitude were regular parts of Jesus’ life, right from the beginning in the wilderness. Over and over again, he disengages, steps back, and goes to pray alone. It seems that he recognized this as part of his daily bread.
Jesus must have known about good, crusty, fresh-baked French bread.
In her book, Bread of Three Rivers, Sara Mansfield Taber sets out to find the perfect loaf of French bread and, in the process, to discover what makes the bread so delicious and satisfying. She ends up tracing the ingredients – flour, salt, water, and yeast – back to their origins, really getting to know the bread from before its creation. One of the most interesting things she discovers is from the baker himself, who tells her that the secret to great bread is that you must “respect the steps of fermentation” (Bread of Three Rivers: The Story of a French Loaf, Sara Mansfield Taber, p. 42).
Standing in the kitchen at the bakery, the baker tells her that leaving the dough alone is just as important as what you “do” to it, what order you put things in and how you knead. He says, “It must be left to rest alone from time to time. Il faut laisser le temps au temps. Time must be left to time.” (Bread of Three Rivers, p. 42).
Taber, who has gone to France looking for the key to enjoying life at a deeper level and hoping that bread will show her the way, experiences an “ah ha” moment then. She says this description – time must be left to time – “seemed to resolve the apparent contradiction between hard work and rest. Time for fermentation is the element that provides the balance, turning hard work from a draining to an enhancing part of life. Hard work – and its product, good bread – requires rest.” (Bread of Three Rivers, p. 43).
Do you think Jesus knew about French bread? He masterfully balanced the hard work of his calling with regular and sustained periods of rest, silence, solitude, prayer. Preaching and healing were vitally important but it would be hard to believe that times of solitude and silence were not also vitally important, as often as we find him there. Several times it seems folks come to find him and drag him back to town before he’s done.
If he wasn’t up on French bread, we can be sure he knew Psalm 46. God’s recipe for us also respects the fermentation process. One of my favorite lines in scripture is verse ten of this psalm: “‘Be still, and know that I am God!’” As a former English major, I can not help but notice the syntax and the punctuation of this verse (at least as we know it in translation here). First off, it ends with an exclamation point. This is not a nice idea but an imperative, something vital and necessary and God wants to make sure we hear it – exclamation point! It’s also written as if the second part of the verse depends upon the first. First be still, and then you will know that I am God.
We know God. But what are we missing in our haste? What more would we know if we took this imperative to heart? Who would we find in the stillness and silence?
Episcopal priest and writer Barbara Brown Taylor calls this kind of Sabbath slowing down “the practice of saying no.” She writes (An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, Barbara Brown Taylor, pp. 132-4):
“In the eyes of the world, there is no payoff for sitting on the porch. A field full of weeds will not earn anyone’s respect. If you want to succeed in this life (whatever your “field” of endeavor), you must spray, you must plow, you must fertilize, you must plant. You must never turn your back. Each year’s harvest must be bigger than the last. That is what the earth and her people are for, right? Wrong god.
In the eyes of the true God, the porch is imperative – not every now and then but on a regular basis. When the fields are at rest – when shy deer step from the woods to graze the purple clover grown up between last year’s tomato plants, and Carolina chickadees hang upside down to pry seeds from the sunflowers that have taken over the vineyard – when the people who belong to this land walk through it with straw hats in their hands instead of hoes to discover that wild blackberries water their mouths as surely as the imported grapes they worked so hard to protect from last year’s frost – this is not called “letting things go”; this is called “practicing Sabbath.” You have to wonder what makes human beings so resistant to it.”
Time must be left to time.
Respect the fermentation process.
The porch is imperative.
Sabbath, stillness, solitude, and silence are such rich blessings not only given to us but required from us by God. And so often we choose to keep working, ignore the porch, rush things along. Is this because we think we already know God and have nothing more to discover?
Be still, and know that I am God! I don’t know that I’ve been still enough long enough to know all there is of God. I do know that I find out more when I do this. A few minutes of silence each day. Surely not as much as I need but enough to get me through this day, enough to know more of God today.
A story comes to us from the early Christian monastic communities who lived in the Egyptian desert, the desert mothers and fathers. It’s a story about busy-ness and work and the stillness of solitude and silence (as told in Finding Sanctuary: Monastic Steps for Everyday Life, Abbot Christopher Jamison, pp. 46-47):
“There were three earnest men who were friends and became monks. One chose to live out the saying “Blessed are the peacemakers” and worked to reconcile enemies. The second chose to visit the sick. But the third stayed in solitude. Now the first worked among many contentious people and found that he could not appease them all, so eventually he was overcome with exhaustion. He sought out his friend who was caring for the sick, only to find that he too was worn out, depressed, and unable to carry on. The two of them decided to visit their friend who lived in the desert, and they told him all their troubles. When they asked him how he was, the monk was silent for a while and then poured some water into a bowl. “Look at the water,” he said, and they saw that it was murky. After a while he said, “Look again and see how clear the water has become.” As they looked, the two monks saw their own faces as in a mirror. And the monk said to his friends: “Because of the turbulence of life, the one who lives in the midst of activity does not see his sins. But when he is quiet, especially in solitude, then he sees the real state of things.”
Monastic communities build their communal life on a routine and a rhythm of silence. Christopher Jamison, the head of an English Benedictine monastery, recently wrote a book called Finding Sanctuary, about finding space for God and our own spirits in the midst of every day life. He actually talks not just about finding this but about building this kind of sanctuary and uses the metaphor of a house as he discusses the various elements that go into the construction. And he names silence as the floor, underlying everything else (p. 29). Underneath all prayer and virtue and hospitality – all of that rests on silence.
Jamison adds, “In the monastic tradition, silent solitude is seen as a necessary part of life, not an additional extra” (p. 47). In a community built around worship and a certain amount of communal silence, there is still the expectation that each person will “sit on the porch” and “respect the fermentation process” each day on their own. Silent solitude is seen as essential. Not something to do when you’ve run out of other things or only on special occasions or as a treat for finishing everything on your to-do list. Essential. Everyday. Necessary to survival. Like our daily bread.
Lent calls us to a season of silence and stillness, as we let the chaff of our lives fall away, creating more space in which to meet God. It’s a long journey to Easter morning and the terrain is rough-going in parts. We need bread for the journey and time for our “fermentation” to happen. We need the porch and God wants to meet us there. It’s as necessary as the floor and the earth beneath our feet. What would happen if we lived like this?
Thanks be to God!
© 2010 Deborah E. Lewis