Trading Fire for Silence


nicole t walters -trading fire for silence3

When I was a young evangelical who was new to faith and the church, I learned to speak about Jesus with passion. When we praised someone who was “on fire for God,” we were describing a person who was vocal about their faith, who talked about experiencing the presence of God, who served in big ways. These were those kids at youth camp who raised their hands or the ones who showed up for the small groups and service projects. We talked about their fire because we could see external evidence of something burning inside them.

So we all worked harder to show our faith. We wanted the feeling of being so consumed by something that it changed our lives. Duty and devotion were intertwined in the inner workings of our faith. If we loved Jesus, then everyone should know it. Our goal was to be sold-out, on fire, radical. Young and fearless, we prayed the prayer of Jim Elliot: “God, I pray light these idle sticks of my life and may I burn up for thee.” All passion and fury, we forged ahead…and some burned up but most burned out.

The nature of fire is that it constantly needs to be fed or it fizzles out. I equated faith with feelings and looked for mountaintop experiences with God to fill me. I understood the Lord’s presence as something to be felt or God must be absent. As we prayed “God, be with us in this place,” I learned to invite God into my worship as if He wasn’t already there and if I felt some stirring within my heart then I must be pleasing Him.

But when the music stopped and the lights went out, I didn’t know how to hear Jesus in the quiet of my own heart. When I heard no answer and felt no rousing emotions, I wondered—had my fire gone out?

I had a language for fervor but not for the doubt, or the dark night of the soul waiting on the other side of anxiety. I didn’t have a place for God in the brokenness or even in the mundane that made up the moments between being lit up. For years I struggled with feeling like I was just living among the dying embers of something I had lost a long time ago. I kept going through the motions of the truth I knew, hoping one day I would feel again.

Just like I can’t pinpoint a time when I entered the wilderness, I can’t remember emerging. I do remember the first time I felt God’s presence completely overwhelm me in a moment of silence. It was so foreign to me.

While I had been reading people like Richard Foster and Thomas Merton and praying with the Cistercian brothers at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, the contemplative faith sounded like round and strange syllables of a new language stuck on my clumsy tongue. I couldn’t bring them into daily life.

I was at a writer’s retreat when author and contemplative Ed Cyzewski led us in a time of lectio divina (a slow reading and reflection on scripture) and twenty minutes of silent reflection. I felt awash in the presence of God and overcome in those moments of silence. I felt a spark I had not in a long time.

Weeks later while practicing silence alone at home, I felt nothing and heard nothing. I wanted to run from contemplative prayer because it failed to bring me an experience I craved…until it hit me. I was replacing one way of striving after a feeling for another. I remembered what Ed had saidmost times in silence you won’t hear anything, and that feeling isn’t the goal. Presence is. Faithfully showing up is.

God is there whether I talk to Him or listen to Him. He is there whether I acknowledge or feel His presence. “God has been waiting on us all along,” says Cyzewski in Flee, Be Silent, Pray, “But we are often too distracted, impatient, or fearful to meet with him. God’s love is here and constant, and there is nothing I can do or feel to change that reality.” I wanted a quick journey back to feeling connected to God but I got a long, abiding walk towards knowing Him.

As a passionate person who throws myself fully into anything I love, I have to fight running off on feelings. I have to force myself to sit in uncomfortable silence, to enter into prayer when I know I may not hear anything in return or feel some consuming fire stirring in my soul. I am trying to live not in the lexicon of consumption these days but in abiding. Remaining and staying connected day in and day out. Through the times when I feel connected to God and the times when I feel like a wandering, lost child. Through the times when blessings overflow and the times when I am fearful and anxious. Instead of burning up, I want to be poured out—a constant filling that is overflowing daily in the radical ordinary of life where God is present and I stop to take notice.