I volunteered to give a reflection at ICUJP's Friday morning session. When I was reflecting on what to reflect on, it occurred to me that the best way for a Quaker to share what is truly important would be to let us have five minutes of silence.
Instead, I decided to talk briefly about why silence is important to us as activists. I hope that my brief reflection will encourage us to listen prophetically.
When we think of prophets, we often think of people who speak truth to power, people whose stirring words move people to action. But we need to remember that great prophets were also great listeners. They listened to the cries of the poor, they listened to the yearnings of the oppressed, and most of all, they listened to the voice of the One who called them to be prophets. Prophetic listening is just as important as prophetic speaking.
Howard Brinton, the Quaker educator and peace activist whose life I describe in my book, gave a talk about Creative Worship in which he describes how great leaders—from Moses to Mohammad, from Buddha to Jesus—became prophetic voices because they listened deeply to the Spirit:
When Moses saw God in the burning bush or Elijah heard the still, small voice, when Paul went to the desert of Arabia after his conversion, or George Fox on Pendle Hill saw in vision a great people to be gathered, when the Buddha sat in meditation under the Bo-tree or Mohammed listened to an angelic voice in the cave near Mecca, above all, when Jesus Himself faced temptation alone in the wilderness, a great new message to the world was born not because God was spoken to but because God was listened to.
All of these prophets withdrew from the noise and the confusion of the world in order to center down in silence and listen deeply to the still, small voice within. Take, for example, Gandhi. For him, prayer and silence were “food for the soul,” as necessary to spiritual life as breathing is for physical life. Here’s one of his many testimonials to the importance of silence:
It has often occurred to me that a seeker after truth has to be silent. I know the wonderful efficacy of silence. I visited a Trappist monastery in South Africa. A beautiful place it was. Most of the inmates of that place were under a vow of silence. I inquired of the Father the motive of it and he said the motive is apparent: 'We are frail human beings. We do not know very often what we say. If we want to listen to the still small voice that is always speaking within us, it will not be heard if we continually speak.' I understood that precious lesson. I know the secret of silence. (YI, 6-8-1925, pp 274-5).
Gandhi took time to pray and meditate on a daily basis, and so have many other Spirit-led activists. This year I am embarking on a new ministry by taking a spiritual direction program called Stillpoint. My goal is to learn how to listen better to the still small voice within myself, and to help others hear the still, small voice within their hearts.
I’d like to end this reflection with Gandhi’s confession about his need for prayer:
Prayer has been the saving of my life. Without it I would have been a lunatic long ago. My autobiography will tell you that I have had my fair share of the bitterest public and private experiences. They threw me into temporary despair, but if I was able to get rid of it, it was because of prayer.
It was a great consolation for me to hear Gandhi admit he would have gone crazy without prayer. I feel the same way. Prayer has helped me to stay relatively sane during crazy-making times of my life. Prayer saved me when my first marriage ended disastrously, when my dear wife Kathleen died at too young an age, when I open up the daily newspaper, read the latest doings of our politicians and want to scream or act out in very un-Quakerly ways. Whatever good I do, I owe largely to prayer. I hope we can find in prayer the strength and inner peace we need to do the work we have been called us to do.