Everyone living today in America in or near a city has a desperate need for the three S's: silence, solitude, and slowing down—both for psychological sanity and for prayer.
1. Silence. Kierkegaard, the great nineteenth century Danish Christian philosopher, spoke often of silence. Almost the last thing he ever wrote was about silence. He said: "If I were a physician, and if I were allowed to prescribe just one remedy for all the ills of the modern world, I would prescribe silence. For even if the Word of God were proclaimed in the modern world, how could one hear it with so much noise? Therefore, create silence."
Silence is necessary; it is not a luxury. Only words that come from silence carry power; words that come from noise, or only from other words, are shallow. Words from silence are like waves from the ocean; words from other words are like babbling brooks at best, at worst like emptying faucets and drains and toilets.
2. Solitude. Solitude is something any ancient sage would long for as a gift. Yet it is the very thing our society has imposed on its most desperate criminals as the cruellest torture it can contrive.
Solitude too is a necessity, not a luxury; for it is the necessary basis of true community. Community without solitude is like a hundred people in a circle each leaning on the next one. Soon the whole circle tips over.
3. Slowing down. Slowing down has become almost impossible today. Life is like a mad white-water river, and boats are capsizing right and left. What we need is to be led beside still waters, so that our souls can be refreshed.
Slowing down is also necessary, for it is the source of all effective activity—like the deeds and words of Christ. Like slowly pulling a bowstring, then suddenly letting it go. The shallow think that only restless souls are alive, but the deep know that only quiet souls are truly alive.
God provided nature for us for many reasons. Three of them are to help us to silence, solitude, and slowing down.
I know from experience that time spent with nature can be an investment in the Bank of Heaven. For there is a wonderful and mysterious power in nature to free us from noise, crowds, and rush, and to steep our souls in silence, solitude, and slowing down. I also know from experience that it is difficult to pray, and impossible to pray well, without silence, solitude, and slowing down.
Unfortunately, most of the people today who know this spiritual power of nature are not Christians but New Age flakes, earth-worshipers, or Buddhists. That is probably one reason why Christians are suspicious of this message: because it is being preached by such suspicious messengers. But it is part of the truth, and even non-Christians know it. Nature abhors a vacuum spiritually as well as physically; and in our spiritually-starved secularistic society, if we do not lead people to silence, solitude, and slowing down, someone else will. And it will sell. Even crumbs of it will sell to starving souls.
What happens when we just meander with nature for a while instead of making something happen? What happens when we forget clocks and obligations, and just watch waves, or stars, or clouds, or sunsets, or rivers? In my experience, at least two things almost always happen. One is natural, the other supernatural. The natural effect can be described as just an overall feeling of refreshment, like cool water in a desert, or a calm after a battle. The supernatural effect is that I can pray better, and want to pray more.
I think the natural effect helps cause the supernatural effect. It fertilizes the soil. It's like psychoanalysis: it's not religion, but it can remove some of the obstacles to true religion, like addiction, or obsession, or paranoia, or depression. I can't pray well if I'm obsessed, and I can't pray well if I'm noisy inside. I think we are sometimes too quick to pray, too impatient with preliminaries. Every house painter knows you have to spend more time in preparation than in actual painting. And every gardener knows you have to spend more time preparing the garden than seeding it. I suspect the same is true of prayer today.
Perhaps this was not so before the Industrial Revolution. Then, we had a very different relationship with nature and with time. Time was related to the cycles of nature and life—meaningful time, time measured by real events, not by clocks. We must learn to ignore clocks and return to real time. Only then will we escape the slavery of clocks. Clocks are our real Frankenstein's monster. We made them, and now they are stronger than we are.
Here is the most practical way nature aids prayer for me. I find that by far the biggest obstacle to prayer is the excuse that I have no time. But after I spend an hour doing nothing but watching waves on rocks, I find that somehow that excuse has lost all meaning; that time is not something I have but something I make as I go along like a spider spinning a web.
Different things in nature will do this for different people. For me, it is the sea. Even though I get bored easily, I can very happily sit for an hour and watch the waves. I think there must be something God put into the sea to remind us of himself—an image of infinity and depth and power and mystery and dynamic activity all at once. When I use abstract concepts, even the best ones I can find, they just don't hold it—like an open hand trying to hold the water of a wave. It has to emerge from the experience itself. Like the storm from which God answered Job, it remains a mystery.
But the "bottom line," the "payoff," is that I emerge from my hour with a lesson learned. Nature teaches me how to listen. How to listen to waves, and thus how to listen in general, and thus how to listen to God. This is an art I know we all need desperately. If we listened, to other people and to God, we would avoid most of our tragedies, wars, divorces, violence, drugs, broken relationships, pains. How can we have faith, hope, and love without listening? How can we enjoy heaven without enjoying listening? How can we be saved unless we learn to listen to God?
If nature can help even a few of us even a little way toward that goal, is this not something literally priceless? So try it. What can you lose?
For more on this talk, see the audio lecture/meditation:
The Sea and Spirituality