Christopher L. Heuertz: Unity in silence

Contemplative silence allows uncommon people to find common ground and a deep understanding that is at the heart of Christian faith: God is love.

They come each Wednesday afternoon at 4 o’clock.

Quietly.

Undramatically.

Some enter in silence and leave in silence, some barely uttering more than a polite greeting and brief word of parting.

As a gesture of reverence, a few folks take their shoes off outside the door, slipping them back on as they make their way.

It’s always an eclectic group that gathers -- an occasional Buddhist, versions of Christians, sometimes a Hindu, even quite a few nonreligious people show up. All of them care deeply about their spirituality. All of them value the mysteries only discovered in silence.

They travel from all over the city to join us at Gravity: A Center for Contemplative Activism for a 20-minute contemplative prayer sit. Some of them actually spend more time driving to get to the center than we spend sharing in our brief contemplative pause, but the draw to meditate in community is worth the journey.

There are quite a few regulars, while it seems each week we always have at least one or two newcomers. All are welcome.

I’m always surprised at who shows up. Surprised that so many people would go out of their way to stop. To pause. To clear their minds and open their hearts.

What’s even more surprising is the small community that has formed around these short moments of silence.

Frequently, you will find a very traditional and conservative Catholic priest sitting across from an LGBT-affirming Episcopal bishop, or perhaps it’s a preacher from the Southern Baptist suburban megachurch seated beside the progressive theologian from the nearby Jesuit university.

Clergy from various Christian traditions and denominations who normally would be divided by doctrine and belief come together in unity. Through their words they would find plenty to disagree on, but silence brings them into a new kind of communion, forming a new kind of community.

I have spent most of my life bringing people together around ideas, causes, events, meals, social justice initiatives and a number of other meaningful opportunities. It has been a value of mine to nurture extremely diverse groups of conversation partners, forming all kinds of seemingly incompatible communities and unlikely social circles.

But the group that meets on Wednesdays is unique. What is it about silence that allows uncommon people to find common ground?

I used to be afraid of silence.

My first spiritual director, the late Bob Ginn, would welcome me into a little room at a religious bookstore in downtown Omaha where we’d meet each month for an hour of sacred listening. Bob had been in an accident and sustained quadriplegic injuries; his wheelchair became for him a sort of monastery that forced him to go inward. Years after his accident, Bob’s spirituality reflected a profound mysticism I’ve not seen in anyone else.

And so when we met, Bob would invite me to share silence with him, sometimes just a few moments; other times it seemed as if most of the hour was spent without words.

I think he knew it was hard for me. In fact, sometimes it was downright agonizing. I was often extremely uncomfortable. But those quiet moments were special and invited me to consider new mysteries.

If I’m honest, I’m still sometimes afraid of silence.

In silence I’m unable to control my environment. In silence I’m forced to face myself, allowing all my fears, shame, guilt, regrets, disappointments, doubts and resentments to wash over me. In silence all the ambition and drive slows down just enough for my mind to come up with new thoughts, unwanted (though important) to-do lists and more ideas than I know what to do with.

Sometimes silence is downright exhausting.

But after I get through my insecurities of not being in control, and after all the pains and discomforts wash over me, and after all the churning new thoughts run their course, something else happens. I find love.

Love for myself.

Love from the Divine.

Love for the Divine.

Love for others.

And when I come out of my contemplative prayer sits, that love allows me to breathe more deeply and more slowly, my eyes to move across the room more gently and my words to be fewer. When I come out of silence in our community prayer sits, everyone around me looks a little more beautiful and seems a wee bit angelic.

Yes, I’m aware that mystics from all religions have been accused of trending toward a form of universalism. But I’m not sure that criticism is either fair or accurate. My sense is that the mystery of silence draws us deeper into love, and love is something that we cannot control; love invites us into fresh ways of thinking and unfamiliar ways of being.

Fundamentally, this is at the heart of our Christian faith tradition. That God is love, and in consenting to silence, we allow Love to wash over us, inviting us into a new we, a new kind of community that affirms the divine imprint in all humanity.

In silence we experience the gentleness of love, despite all our attempts to resist it. In silence we discover transcendent union of body, mind, soul and spirit. And that union allows for surprising unity.

Unity in silence has become an unexpected gift.