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Letters From a Hospital Bed #47: Reflections From a 99 Year Old

Letters from a Hospital Bed is a series of reflections by Jim Houston, now entering his 100th year, in which Jim seeks to capture and reflect new insights of his ever-discoverable God, revealed through his own hospitalization, for the encouragement of all care givers.

An Exploration of the Strange Experience of Being Still…Well, More Still Than Normal!

September 29, 2022

Dear Friends:

As we continue to reflect further on what it means for us to be ‘heavenly minded’, I would like to explore a little of a pattern of choice that I continue to find rather challenging, personally, but which should, by this stage in life, be much easier. The choice is one of stillness.

I confess to a certain irony that in my sense of urgency and even drive to prepare a letter for you each week, in searching for new topics to explore, that stillness remains elusive even when so much of my body is hardly adequate for vigorous physical activity. Thus, first of all, when I speak of stillness, I am not referring to a state of being motionless, even though that might help. Were being without motion sufficient for stillness, I should know much more about the subject in practice than I find that I do. Even on days when my enthusiasm for mobility of any kind wanes, I find stillness to be an ongoing challenge. Many teach that to be truly still, our minds must be at rest and in a sense, even empty of thought, but the early fathers of our church had much deeper insight that we have perhaps lost.

One of the reasons that I have spent so much time in my career seeking to engage with the early fathers of the church is that they lived their lives so much nearer to the world of Christ’s apostles. My children tease me that some of my very best friends have been dead for nearly two millennia and it is likely true. Early in my career as a Geographer, in Oxford, I was introduced to writings that were later compiled into several volumes of The Philokalia (ed. G.E.H. Palmer; Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware). There I learned of the word ”hesychia” which I came to understand as being cleansed of bad thoughts. As I sleep and cannot control my thoughts, I have learned to invite the Lord to guard my mind as I sleep and so to dwell peacefully in His presence.

Far from a vacant mind, the stillness to which Christ invites us is the kind of stillness that he sought out Himself. John Michael Talbot, the musician, has written that “those who wanted to follow Jesus wanted to imitate his stillness before they could imitate his actions. They needed to understand his silence before they could speak his words. They needed to know his emptying of self through ultimate dying before they could proclaim the abundance of eternal life.” This kind of stillness is active, not passive. It not the stillness of the vacant mind, it is a deep stillness that is the corollary for the vigorous action that lies ahead. It is one of active mental quietude, not an embrace of dead silence but of active listening for the God who speaks. This is the stillness of Samuel who says to the Lord, ‘speak Lord, for your servant hearest’.

This stillness we need to seek is to actively embrace a willingness to be taught by God; as Matthew the apostle writes, “seek ye first the kingdom of God”. To be ‘heavenly minded’ is not to have a vacant and or passive mind, it is to have the mind of Christ. As the apostle Paul urges us, “let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” which Paul describes as a mind of humility, of active attention to the Father, of being stilled from all distractions so that we can hear His voice and attend to His will, one of being emptied of self.

From a convent in Germany, in the 18th century, a little-known nun, Katrina von Schlegel, penned these words that may inspire our hearts…

Be still, my soul; the Lord is on your side; bear patiently the cross of grief or pain; leave to your God to order and provide; in ev'ry change he faithful will remain. Be still, my soul; your best, your heav’nly friend through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be still, my soul; your God will undertake to guide the future as he has the past; your hope, your confidence, let nothing shake; all now mysterious shall be bright at last. Be still, my soul; the waves and winds still know his voice who ruled them while he lived below.

Be still, my soul; when dearest friends depart and all is darkened in the vale of tears, then you will better know his love, his heart, who comes to soothe your sorrows and your fears. Be still, my soul; your Jesus can repay from his own fullness all he takes away.

Be still, my soul; the hour is hast'ning on when we shall be forever with the Lord, when disappointment, grief, and fear are gone, sorrow forgot, love's purest joys restored. Be still my soul; when change and tears are past, all safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

What strikes me about this hymn is how it illustrates that stillness is a gift, not of our wrestling, but for our receiving. May we each find the space and time in which we might receive such a gift knowing that through its receiving we, with Christ, are thus prepared for whatever lies ahead.

In friendship Jim

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