Peace in The Midst of Chaos
Welcome to Day 2 of our Advent 21 Day Centering Prayer Challenge
But he passed through the midst of the crowd and went on his way. . .” —Luke 4:30
The cacophony of voices stirs reactions, especially in a political season. A strident voice meets another strident voice. A passionate opinion counters another passionate opinion. And part of this is how democracy and decision-making works: the contest of ideas, the clash of visions, the proposals and counter-proposals.
I’m not speaking about media coverage during an election year. I’m referring to the mind’s incessant jostling of thoughts during prayer. In Centering Prayer, one basic inner move is to “release thoughts.” Whether it is a despairing or glorious thought, the teaching, derived from the 14th century The Cloud of Unknowing,is to let it go. The anonymous mystic of that text tells practitioners to put both holy and profane thoughts alike under a “thick cloud of forgetting.” Thoughts are not bad, in and of themselves; but they are not who we are, and they are not God. The releasing gesture of thoughts during Centering Prayer reminds us that there is a freedom available beyond our thoughts, and our tendencies to flee, fight, or freeze.
Inside, we react. We get angry or feel sad. We become exultant or afraid. Jealousy fills us, or denial. We must be right and the other person wrong. We believe, often in the secrecy of our hearts, that our advancement must come at the defeat of someone else. We clutch our various partial identities with an either/or fevered grip: we are Democrats or Republicans, Congregationalists or Catholics, Red Sox or Yankees fans. We think these labels constitute our identities, and when we sit down to be silent, the voices of these partial identities are loud. Our thoughts persist. They are so loud, in fact, that it is difficult to hear the voice of God.
Luke’s gospel tells that Jesus passes right through the frenzied midst of a crowd in Nazareth, witnessing peaceful presence as the people rage. Applied to our inner lives, our thoughts join with the crowds in relentless cheering and jeering. They are relentless. To make any headway, we must be willing to walk through their frenzy with a firm intention for peace and surrender. It takes silence, practice, and time.
One minute the crowd is full of false praise as Jesus delivers his first sermon. The next, they are chanting slogans, spewing hate speech, and driving him off a cliff. It would have been exceedingly easy for Jesus to fight them, to claim the righteous upper hand. Equally, Jesus could have fled. Instead, Luke simply says that Jesus passes through the midst of crowd and goes on his way.
Silence is the pathway of peace in the middle of chaos. Mark Longhust
Whatever thoughts are jostling in our mind, the practice of silence loosens their grip and over time heals our inner divisions. In Centering Prayer, we speak a sacred word as a gesture of “letting them go.” Through lives of prayer and spiritual practice, we become able, like Jesus, to pass through the roiling waves of each day with more stability, less reactionary energy, more kindness, and more appropriate confidence. Slowly, we become able to witness life’s frenzy instead of joining it. This is the life-changing possibility of silence and contemplation.
Mark Longhurst is a writer and pastor pursuing a path of ordinary mysticism. He served United Church of Christ churches in Massachusetts for a decade, manages Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations for the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC), blogs, and sends a weekly newsletter of insights on mysticism, everyday life, and justice. He has two boys, Ian and Oliver, with his life-partner Faith, and is a near-fanatical fan of MASS MoCA.