The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.1
During a recent reading of Eliot’s Choruses from “The Rock”, the busyness of my life came into fresh focus. While the days fold into one another and work continues apace, the actual progress made seems only measurable in time spent. As Milton phrased it, “My hasting days fly on with full career, / but my late spring no bud or blossom shew’th.”2 I’ve heard, perhaps you have too, that a good life isn’t so much about what you do as it is about who you are. And, perhaps like me, you believe that there is some truth to that statement.3 Why is it so hard then to find the stillness to be and listen?
When we turn to the Bible, Mary and Martha jump to mind. It’s a story you are probably familiar with, but to refresh our memory, here’s the story in full:
Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)4
The breakdown is fairly clear. Martha, caught up in her serving and hospitality, has neglected the opportunity to learn from Christ. Mary, on the other hand, is praised because she takes advantage of the chance to hear from Christ. The lesson is straightforward: living life well involves spending time listening to Christ, rather than solely doing things for him. But, that only reiterates the goal which we’ve discovered to be difficult to reach. As I head back to Eliot though, an answer begins emerging.
They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.5
When the darkness is so prevalent, working to escape, to reach the point where all is light, makes sense. But, putting the pressure of successfully fighting the darkness on myself involves taking on the responsibility of God. And, as we’ve seen before, taking God’s place is a sure way to create a bit of hell. In my efforts to fight the darkness, I’ve merely extended it. But, in identifying the problem, we also glimpse its answer.
It’s an answer Milton also grasped. Speaking of his life, he wrote:
Yet be it less or more; or soon or slow,
It shall be still in strictest measure even
To That same lot, however mean or high,
Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heaven;
All is, if I have grace to use it so,
As ever in my great Taskmaster’s eye.6
Rather than focus on the hasting days flying by, our focus ought to be on Christ. Like Mary, our gaze needs to turn back to our Lord. It is in this humility that we find freedom, both from the pressures of a task we cannot accomplish and from the need for constant work. Trusting God’s control allows me to be still and listen. And in listening, I will learn how and where to continue serving.
Do you make time and space for stillness and silence in your life? What does this look like?
Why do you think there is less stillness and silence in our lives today?
2. John Milton. “Sonnet 7,” in The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton, Edited by William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon (New York: Random House, 2007), 144.
3. Then again, if this idea is new to you, or if you disagree, feel free to let us know. I’d be more than glad to look at this idea further with you.
4. Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
5. Eliot, Choruses from “The Rock”, 106.
6. Milton, Sonnet 7, 144.
Photo courtesy of Matthew Wiebe