The first time I used a chip credit card on one of the new chip-reading machines in a store, I was amazed at how long I had to leave my card in themachine for it to process. I just had to stand there and wait, when I had places to go and things to do! Then someone pointed out to me that it really only took about ten seconds. I was flabbergasted. It had seemed so long. Next time, I counted the seconds myself: “One-one-thousand, two-one-thousand…” and sure enough, it was about ten seconds. Only ten seconds, but it feels like forever, especially if I am in a hurry, anxious to keep moving.
The earth moves around the sun at 67,000 miles/hour, and yet it feels like we are sitting still. Time is a matter of perspective, as is movement, andthe two are closely related. I have a friend who has worked in a Museum of Natural History for thirteen years, surrounded by rocks and fossils, studying them. She is accustomed to measuring time in eons. Now she has taken up the study of botany. She finds plants to be fascinatingly dynamic and fast-moving. “I can hardly keep up with them!” she remarked one day. I suppose if you are accustomed to fossils, plants do seem pretty quick. But from my perspective, they seem slow. So slow that I often make the mistake of thinking they are still. And silent.
But I can remember when I was younger, growing up in the South, there was usually at least one day in the Springtime when, if you listened closely enough, you could hear the plants growing. You could actually hear the little popping, spitting, and creaking noises of the plants as they rushed to push out and open up the delicate petals of their flowers, and new, tender green leaves to greet the warmth of the Springtime sun. If I held really still, and was very quiet and listened carefully, I could hear the sounds of the trees waking up, stretching, moving, returning to active life after winter’s dormancy. It was the sound of miracle, absolutely wondrous. I so easily could have missed it altogether if I had been constantly moving and hurrying, if I had never stopped and held still in those suspended moments, listening with attentive silence, ready to receive what would be offered in its own time, rather than becoming impatient when nothing immediately “happened,” when nothing instantly stimulated me.
And this is one of the secrets of prayer, one of the secrets of receiving what God offers through prayer. It involves stillness, and it involves silence. Silence is not simply a lack of noise or stimulation. It is a posture of open attentiveness, a receptive listening. It is letting go of, and being free from, our own “stuff” for even just a moment – our own schedules and frantic hurry to accomplish the things that we think are so important, our own internal chatter and manic agendas, our own cacophony of judgment and relentless worry, our own superficial priorities and timetables. Not doing and striving, being still and silent without instantaneous results or things “happening,” is hard for us. But prayer time works differently than other kinds of time. Part of the experience of prayer is stepping out of “chronos” – regular, linier, measured time marching along at even, calculable intervals such as seconds and minutes – and stepping into “kairos” – God’s time, holy time, time that moves in the immeasurable ways of eternity. And this often involves waiting, seemingly in stillness. For holy things such as prayer, grace and love are not about calculable schedules and immediate results. These things move on a different time frame. Divine things can be difficult to perceive when we are caught up in the march of our regular timetables. Suspended moments that seem still and silent but yet are very full and alive are where eternity happens, where miracles take place. And they are happening all around, whether we care to listen, whether we pause to pray, or not. This is how grace and love and God’s continuing act of creation moves - so slowly, like an eternity stretched over countless eons, and also astonishingly quickly, like a twinkling of an eye. We can’t comprehend it, but in those moments when we can let go of our attachments to our own agendas, we can be caught up in the wonder and awe of theHoly.