Toorak Uniting Church

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Don’t just do Something, Sit there!

Isaiah 40: 21 – 31 and Mark 1: 29 – 39
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
5 February 2012

 Don't just do Something, Sit there!

The story is often told of a young man who approached Mahatma Gandhi saying that he wanted to become a Hindu. Gandhi looked the keen new convert in the eye and said, "Go back to your own faith and find what you are looking for there." Often Christianity and Christian faith is portrayed as either a system of beliefs - to be a Christian is to give intellectual ascent to and believe in historical doctrines and creeds. Or Christianity it is a moral code, often captured in words like, "Oh that’s not a very Christian thing to do." Or it is also seen as an activist’s religion with primary concern about justice and the new world order. In some sense all of these. But one aspect that is often missing from our definitions of Christian faith is that it is a "contemplative" religion. That’s what Gandhi was referring to. If you are looking for inner peace, stillness, prayerfulness and meditation, begin were you are and find the roots of these practices at home.

Solitude and the Life of Wholeness:
It may seem strange to says, but in the last 50 years the "spiritual, contemplative" base of Christian experience has been recovered. This has occurred in part through the writings of Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen and Richard Rohr in the Catholic tradition; and Evelyn Underhill, Cynthia Bourgeault, and Richard Foster in the protestant tradition and perhaps the re-reading of the early 20th century religious psychologist William James in the liberal tradition. The emphasis in this movement is that Christian faith is both a practice and a WAY. We know that the first name the Christians claimed for themselves was "the people of the Way." It was meant to convey a holistic approach to life, "a way of life" and way being in the world. Beliefs would come and go, but the journey would always be there.

Recovering these insights also meant recovering an understanding of Jesus’ way of being in the world and it doesn’t take much to discover that Jesus was not primarily a political radical, (a modern term that has little relevance to the first century anyway.) Nor was he just an activist who spent all his time in teaching, preaching and healings. He was in fact a man who frequently and consciously turned his back on the endless demands of the people around him and chose solitude, to be alone!

Here’s a few reference from the gospels:

after Jesus was baptized the Spirit led him into the wilderness…

Mark 1:12

Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed.

Mark 1:35

Then he made the disciples get into the boat and precede him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening he was there alone.

Matthew 14:22-23

In those days he departed to the mountain to pray, and he spent the night in prayer to God.

Luke 6:12

And when day came, He departed to a lonely place; and the multitudes were searching for Him, and came to Him, and tried to keep Him from going away from them.

Luke 4:42

Some have argued that the greatest healer for personal inner turmoil and struggle is solitude. It is the only place where our "hidden wholeness" can emerge.

There are at least two things that keep us from entering into the place of solitude and experiencing its life giving presence. The first thing that holds us back is fear. We can truly be fearful of being alone. We walk into a room and turn on the radio or the TV. We drive in the car and never think of turning off the radio and driving in silence. We send emails, texts, phone calls and have conversations to make sure we stay in touch and that we are connected. And that can be a very good thing, but there are wonderful insights and learnings that occur only when we are by ourselves and they are missed when we are in the world of busy communication and daily activity. So there is a place where we can turn the music off and even turn off the busy engine of life and pay attention to what is at the heart of our lives.

Being still and turning off the engine reminds me of a story:

There was a mechanic who was removing a cylinder-head from the motor from a motorcycle when he spotted a well-known cardiologist in his shop. The cardiologist was there waiting for the service manager to come take a look at his car when the mechanic shouted across the garage, "Hey Doc, want to take a look at this?" The cardiologist, a bit surprised, walked over to where the mechanic was working on the motorcycle. The mechanic straightened up, wiped his hands on a rag and asked, "So Doc, look at this engine. I open its heart, took the valves out, repaired any damage, and then put them back in, and when I finish, it works just like new. So tell me, how come I make $30,000 a year and you get the really big bucks, when you and I are really doing basically the same work?"
The cardiologist paused, smiled and leaned over, then whispered to the mechanic... ''Try doing it with the engine running."

To renew the centre of our lives we need to turn the engine off. We need the still, quiet and lonely places to face ourselves, our thoughts, our feelings, our imaginations and memories and then our active lives are renewed and the world is a more rewarding and less fearful place.

Another reason we avoid solitude is that we are busy people and what would others think if we were not "on the job!" I recall some years ago a visit to my office by a dear member of the congregation I served in Canada. He was also the treasurer of the church and he would, without exception, deliver my monthly pay cheque to me by hand. He would often say, "So, is that enough?" And I knew by the chuckle that followed that there was no point asking for more. On one occasion he can into my office and I was sitting in one of the comfortable chairs reading. He said, "Oh, so no work to do today!" I immediately felt the need to justify myself. "I’m preparing my sermon and I had to read this book to get some new material, to make the sermon fresh and interesting," I stammered out. It is interesting that my job, my ministry, depends on me reading, writing, reflection and speaking and yet for that brief moment I felt as if was not being very productive.

We may all need to take more seriously the words of Luke’s Gospel:

and great crowds assembled to listen to him and to be cured of their ailments, but he would withdraw to a lonely place to pray.

Luke 5:15-16

But, what does that but mean, "But he would withdraw to a lonely place to pray." It may sound to some that he was being irresponsible to withdraw when there was such pressing needs. But, I think it is a clear proof that Jesus was aware that he was not indispensable, nor was he inexhaustible and that life demands both action and contemplation.

Busyness and that sense that we must always be useful, willing to spend and be spend for the needs of others, can cause us to miss life’s true purpose and meaning. The Catholic priest and activist for the disabled, Henri Nouwen in an article titled Out of Solitude tells the story of a carpenter and his apprentice.
It goes like this:

A carpenter and his apprentice were walking together through a large forest. And when they came across a tall, huge, gnarled, old, beautiful oak tree, the carpenter asked his apprentice: "Do you know why this tree is so tall, so huge, so gnarled, so old and beautiful?"
The apprentice looked at his master and said: "No, why?"
"Well," the carpenter said, "because it is useless. If it had been useful it would have been cut long ago and made into tables and chairs, but because it is useless it could grow so tall and so beautiful that you can sit in its shade and relax."

Being alone teach us to be fully present
Simone Weil the French philosopher and political activist said the greatest gift we can give another person is our undivided attention. It is giving the gift of one’s presence. You might think that the best way to achieve this is to concentrate harder when the other person is speaking. Or rid your mind of irrelevant thoughts and just listen intently to the conversation. But presence to the other is actually grown and developed in our times of solitude, silence and stillness. What shapes us and forms our inner being is the practice of just being and not doing anything. A dear friend often reminds me that we are "human beings" and not "human doings."

I wonder if some of what I am saying strikes you as heresy against the modern way of being in the world. Surely the most important things we do are the things we do!! The idea that more is accomplished when less is done, sounds foreign, almost blasphemous to our post-industrial ears. But what most influences our outer world of actions and activities is surely our inner world.

David Benner in his book, Soulful Spirituality, says this:

One of the reasons most of us are limited in our ability to be present to others and ourselves is that we possess so little inner stillness. We are too full to be truly still – full of distractions, preoccupations, plans worries, regrets, things that need to be rehearsed and things that need to be reviewed. Our inner world is a cauldron – endless motion, endless noise. It mirrors our external world.

Attention to the inner world, the inner life brings a focus and effectiveness to the outer world of daily activity.

Jesus dismissed the crowds and after doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening he was there alone.

Matthew 14:23

Blaise Pascal the French mathematician and Christian mystic said that all human evil comes from people’s inability to sit still in a room. He probably meant that in order to be at peace with others you have to be at peace with yourself. And in that time of just sitting still, one’s real life slowly begins to emerge.

But before that happens, first, the restlessness; then the sense of futility at not doing anything. Then comes judgment and criticism at wasting time, followed by a wisp of boredom. But by then the ground work is starting to be done. And a slow sense of presence begins to rise. What is important comes to the surface and we begin to be able to let go of what is of little or no value. We gain a more holistic insight into our own lives and the lives of those around us. We are more open and alert; more aware and attentive; more hopeful and less fearful. And in the process maybe some of our self-importance falls away and the god of busyness is not worshipped with the same devotion and vigour.

So don’t just do something, Sit There! And in the process of sitting there, you will discover what is best to do.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2012

Comments or suggestions on this page appreciated by email, Thanks.