Two years ago this month, I spent a glorious five days at my favorite Benedictine monastery learning more about a 16th-century Carmelite nun who reformed much of the monastic community of her day by training the women—and then many of the men—in prayer. Not the verbal kind of prayer but the practice of meditation, contemplation, and silence born of praying in and through the Scriptures.
It was this same uncompromising desire to mine the Scriptures for the revealed Word that led Martin Luther to launch, unwittingly, the Reformation. Teresa of Avila would have been two years old when Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg saying, in effect, “what I see the church doing and what I hear Jesus saying are not the same thing.” Teresa experienced the conflict this way: “how I hear God calling me to pray, and how the Church allows women to pray are not the same thing.”
After being introduced to the practice of “listening prayer” through an ancient book she found on the shelf at her uncle’s house, she returned to urge the local Bishop to allow her to teach these prayers to the young women at the convent. He said no. “These are not for women. You just stick to the Lord’s Prayer.” And so she did, teaching the women to add great gaps of silence in between each line and, much as Luther had done in his Small Catechism, turned the Lord’s Prayer into a master class in hearing and responding to the word of God.
This Scripture-based listening—called lectio divina (divine reading)—was the most common monastic prayer practice of Luther’s day. It would have been a part of his basic toolbox of daily prayers. There are a few variations of this ancient contemplative practice, but the common thread is that it involves reading sacred texts with the understanding that God is speaking to us—to you and to me—in and through these inspired words to guide, comfort, correct, encourage, and fill us with the love we need to love others well. As we read we are to listen until a word or phrase catches our attention and then slowly ponder it, considering in the silence things such as what do I know about that word/phrase? What meaning does it have in my life? What images come to mind? And what might Jesus be trying to show me in and through it today?
Over the course of that particular retreat on the life of Teresa of Avila two years ago, I found myself keenly aware of the curious way in which God has guided and shaped my own faith life. Baptized at an Episcopal church, with little familial teaching or support to build on that means of grace, I entered my teens and early twenties as a typical “hip, L.A. agnostic.” I was 33 when I finally came to faith in a profound conversion at a specific moment in time exactly where God had placed me—in a little Lutheran church in my neighborhood—in advance of a crisis. A few months later I was invited to join a small group of Lutherans on a retreat at St. Andrews Abbey where I would learn about the practice of lectio divina, the liturgy of the hours, chanted prayer, and the practice of silence. I knew nothing at the time about the difference between what Catholics and Lutherans believed, or that it was in any way unusual for someone in the Lutheran tradition to be at a Benedictine monastery. I just knew that whatever God wanted to give me I wanted to have.
For the next 20 years, I would grow in the love and knowledge of the Living God through these two strong guides: the weekly grounding in a Lutheran community which gave me the lens through which I would see Jesus, and the daily prayer practice learned through the monastic community, which connected me in a deeply personal way to Christ. As I grew, the desire to help others find their way grew in me, too, leading me to create midweek “entry point” services like The Renaissance Service (TM) , and The Peace Service. To write little books like happy are those. And now as I travel around the country speaking, to introduce others to a new way. A simpler way. The way of hearing the Living God not only through His word but in the ripple of silence beyond His word.
For most this seems like a whole new world. This sort of listening prayer practice has not been taught by many in the Lutheran church. In some places it is actively discouraged, as the old guard holds firm to the position that monasteries and their practices are inherently bad: that they mislead people into thinking that we worship a God of exotic mountaintop experiences when in fact He is right here in the muck with us. This is a good thing to be mindful of but here, now, in the 21st-century, where joining a monastery is hardly high up on anyone’s top 10 career paths, the fear causes us to lose far more than we gain. Thankfully, for the past five hundred years, while the Protestant church shunned contemplative practices, the monasteries and their flocks kept them alive, holding the silence for a noisy world until we were ready for them again. One of the great teachers of lectio divina—a 12th-century monk named Guigo—explains that the desire to pray the Scriptures comes when “you feel the gap between your life and God’s promise.”
Look around. Daily we awaken to new levels of chaos and conflict and uncertainty. The gap between our longing hearts and a gracious God seems impossibly far to many; a gap that the simple, unmediated word of God and the subsequent life-giving peace that it brings can begin to fill.
It was Martin Luther who taught us all that “Scripture is the manger in which Christ lies,” but he was terrified of people’s longing to stand in silent awe and behold Him. Even now that old fear sadly still clings, and I’m left to mourn not only the tenacity of that fear but the great loss to the people of God, to His Church, and to the world that has come from reinforcing it—sometimes overtly, sometimes simply by failing to allow so much as a breath between the elements of a worship service for God to speak into the hearts of the faithful.
The more I study and understand the gift of that prophetic cry sola Scriptura, the more it seems incomprehensible to me that a divide should still exist between the people who confess that Scripture Alone is the source and norm of all teaching and the people who believe that through and beyond His word, “he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:25). Wrestling with this conflict, I find myself wondering if Teresa of Avila and Martin Luther ever met. With a wink, I dare to imagine what would have happened if they did:
It was not a dark and stormy night but it was fall, and the villagers were starting to come in a little earlier. Stay a little later. Martin and Teresa had each been traveling. They meet in a pub halfway between Avila and Wittenberg. (Maybe the Swiss held a theological summit: who knows?) Martin has a beer or three. Teresa abstains—not because she doesn’t drink but because she knows the importance of the meeting. Luther would have been in his waning days of “fighting the good fight,” Teresa in her rising. But in their reformer’s hearts they would have been peers. They shared a profound love of Scripture. They were both change agents of the once-in-a-millennia variety. They both burned with the same urgent fire: that the people would move beyond their puny, transactional faith and embrace the “living and active” word of God. And that the church leaders entrusted with their care would teach them.
Martin orders another round. The bar swells with rowdy chatter. Darts fly past. Martin and Teresa lean in, pinking in the heat, and debate the prickly point of pursuing “union with God.” Martin pounds his fist and sputters something contemptuous about “mysticism.” He was ever vigilant about causing despair or hubris in the faithful. Teresa smiles and pats him gently on the hand, “Now, Martin, don’t you think it’s fair to say that God gave us His word as well as the silence from which the Word came?” Martin stops to consider her position, as he often does with the devout and influential women God placed in his life. Teresa’s eyes spark like flint in a welder’s hands. This is not the sort of meeting she was forced to have in her early years in the convent, before the Living God has taken hold of her heart; then, she was just a beautiful young woman enlisted to flirt in the convent parlor with potential donors to help keep the doors open. Now she was a woman of God in the full fruits of her gifts. “Don’t you think we should trust the Spirit of the Living God to speak to His children in whatever way He sees fit?”
In the creche of silence they’d created in the noisy tavern, Teresa waits. Silence, she’s learned, is the good soil of humility. In silence, we find our common ground.
Perhaps this is why the psalmist is called to proclaim: “Be still and know that I am God.” Be still. As in stop moving. Stop talking. Stop praying even, and let God have the floor. For it was from silence that God first created the world and everything in it. It was in silence that He prepared Elijah at the Wadi Cherith (1 Kings 17: 2-7) girding his heart for the showdown at Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18:19-40) and then, again, revealing Himself to His weary prophet as healer and savior (I Kings 19:12). It was to silence that Jesus retreated all throughout the Gospels (Mark 1:12, 1:35, 1:45; Luke 6:12-13; Matthew 14:13, 15:29 just to name a few), taking time to hear His father as he journeyed through this human life. And it is in and through life-giving silence and the practice of listening—to God, to one another—that we begin to hear how we are being called to love and serve and heal.
Silence is the great gift the 21st-century church has for a noisy world, but rare is the church where silence can be found any more. Instead we fill our gatherings with words and decibels and images and rote responses as if we’re afraid of what might happen if we took time together and let God speak. While the church remains gridlocked in an old argument over traditional vs. contemporary worship, we have lost sight of a third way: contemplative worship. The way of silence. The way that Teresa of Avila called the practice of taking a “long, hard, loving look at the real.”
How do we do that together? Well, as we move beyond the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation clamor we might begin by reclaiming the practice of punctuating worship services with silence, and trusting the Holy Spirit to know how to use it. And, even more challenging for a Church that is suspicious of anything that comes in from the margins, to begin to recognize that God has been quietly preparing the hearts of artists and mystics and everyday saints to show us a new way. A way of peace that invites people in. And calls people home.
A hush falls across the noisy pub. Heads lift, and turn, expectant.