In Praise of Stillness
“Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.”
-- Max Ehrman, Desiderata © 1952
I am once again in my hometown of Plattsburgh, New York, in the Adirondack Mountain Region of Upstate New York. We have just celebrated Thanksgiving with my 92-year-old mother at our family home on a bluff overlooking Lake Champlain and historic Valcour Island, with views of the Adirondacks to the south and the Green Mountains of Vermont across the lake to the east. It is a wonderful spot, and a glorious sight. I don’t visit it enough.
We had quite a feast last night, and are all enjoying an agenda-free morning recovering from our annual “food coma.” As always, the dawn breaking over the Vermont mountains has lit the lake like the opening scene of a nature movie, the light streaming through bedroom windows to rouse the residents, reluctantly.
It is in these moments that I feel the basic truth of the first line of Max Ehrman’s famous poem. The surface of the lake is still, awaiting the rousing touch of the late morning winds. The silence is complete (we are isolated by deep woods from town activity and noise), broken only once by the passing of a flight of Canadian geese heading – finally – someplace else. The water and woodland creatures may be hibernating or enjoying a late morning; in any event, they are not in evidence. All is calm, all is quiet, all is beautiful.
This is truly tonic for the soul.
It seems to me that we are built for activity but meant for stillness. I’m not advocating a monastic existence, but I do believe that active contemplation can play a beneficial role in anyone’s life. The stillness I am referring to is not simply the absence of activity, it is a mindset, an attitude of openness and receptivity to the moment and the physical world around it. It is a mental orientation that permits the full appreciation of beauty and invites consideration of the spiritual, allowing us to hear the “small, whispering voice” of the divine (1 Kings 19:12).
In stillness, we can be both by ourselves and not alone.
We are all in this world and part of it. It surrounds us and bombards us daily with sights, sounds, smells, information, demands, concerns, emotional triggers, opportunities and dangers. The sheer volume of stimuli can confuse, discourage and dismay. Just as warriors need rest and nourishment, we all can benefit from taking time to shut out the cacophony around us and be still. Time to quietly contemplate the good and beautiful in our lives and the greater world around us. Time to connect with that piece of the divine that is in each one of us. For while we were all made to be in this world, we are not intended for it alone.
Father Frank Andersen, a writer of much popular church music, captured all of this in his song “Be Still, My Friends.” I invite everyone to listen to the lyrics. And then to reflect on the wisdom found in the closing paragraphs of Desiderata:
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.
Warmest best wishes to all throughout this holiday season!