Instead lead your people beside the still waters of their souls.”The art of pastoring - contemplative reflections, William C. Martin, p. 38
The line I quoted just above1, struck a note for me. In my mind I saw an image of beautiful still waters, and it seemed so very desirable to come home like that.
But how? Time for some experimental research. I’ve already done plenty of that, with my experiments in contemplation, meditation with the Jesus Prayer, and mindfulness. These experiences, combined with this new thought about sitting beside the still waters of my soul, will be the starting point of the following reflections.
First: stillness. How do the waters of our soul become still? For all too long I was worried that all calls to stillness were an attempt to “shut me up”, dismiss my brain, get “me” out of the way. My brain has vehemently (and rightly, I think!) protested against such dismissal of ‘me’. But by experimenting with mindfulness I learned the difference between “thinking” and “noticing my thoughts”. This is totally weird. Who is this “I” who notices my own thoughts? I’ve come to see this “I”, this awareness, consciousness, as a very deep and important aspect of “me”2. Much purer, and more trustworthy, than my thoughts that will go this way and that. This “me” is thus stable and present, and therefore it is safe and possible to let my thoughts drift along, waiting for them to calm down and settle, and be present.
Second: attentiveness. This is helpful for attaining stillness. As explained above, noticing is not the same as thinking. Thoughts disturb us, but attentiveness calms the waters. We cannot command ourselves to “be still”. Stillness seeps in, over time, when we are attentive. I described it once in a poem on a night when I could not sleep, and I sat upstairs, looking out over the backyard, just noticing all the other houses, and somehow, a stillness descended.
Third: love. It’s a bit of a cliché, but at such moments, there is this wonderful awareness of how love connects everything. How the stillness is actually full of life. And this influences us, heals us, will be noticeable in the other moments of life, when we go about our business. It will help us to be more present to our family, colleagues and whoever we meet.
Fourth: the monsters in the deep3. Here comes the catch (or, the interesting bit). It isn’t as if we could always sit still, wait long enough, and automatically find peace and love and connection to everything. There’s always the possibility that a monster shows up. The monster of Loch Ness, the Leviathan, whatever. I’m not entirely sure what causes the monsters to appear, whether they are good or bad, so let me investigate this a little further.
Let me explain the situation with a few examples. On my first attempt at contemplation, I sat still to be with God and was crushed by the deep conviction that God did not want me around. Or see my cartoon about ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ when I tried to follow its advice to direct my love to God and fell in the deep chasm of doubt whether anyone was actually there to receive my love. My cartoon about the Jesus Prayer depicts yet other problems. The worst of it is that I tend to see these problems as my own fault. That I am too sinful, not trusting enough, definitely doing something wrong and therefore God doesn’t give me peace4. Perhaps this is the monster of all monsters.
The image with which I began, of sitting beside the waters, now affirms an idea that I had about how we can best deal with those monsters. Namely: just notice them, and do nothing.
Why would this help? My first instinct was to root them out, pursue them down to the bottom. And I’m very grateful to all the friends, pastors and therapists who listened and thereby helped me explore the depths of my fears. But right now I learn something new from mindfulness: noticing without judgement. This helps me relax, and see that a thought like: “God does not want me” is just that: a thought. I can notice it without following. No need to analyze, seek out its cause, judge it as either right or wrong… All that is not necessary, would only drag me deeper in the mire. Quietly noticing heals me better than talking and investigating and trying to fix things.
And then I can take one step further. When I sit still, quietly noticing how my soul breathes the gift of life5, I can speak calmly with Jesus about whatever stirs the waters. He gives a peace that is beyond understanding.
So, let’s stop struggling with our thoughts. This “sitting beside the still waters of our soul” turns out to be quite interesting, not half as boring as the image of the ripple-free lake might suggest. I can certainly recommend it, and I look forward to new discoveries.
- An online friend of mine on GoodReads, that always inspiring source for new books, said that he was reading this book already for the tenth time, since it was so very beautiful. I bought it immediately, just to see for myself.
- The more I experience this, the more I feel this “gift of life” for which I am very grateful, as I prayed at the end of my text Gratitude
- Ha! Surely you didn’t expect me to write a text that was solely serene and calm? To be honest, I tried, but it didn’t work out.
- My mind has a dreadful knack of turning everything upside down. So for example when people quote Augustine to encourage me to find peace with God, I think: “I have no peace, hence I must be far from God, hence I must be a dreadful sinner and end up in outer darkness”.
- Genesis 2:7 then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.