The good folks at Patheos asked me to interview the Norris Chumley, author of the new book Be Still and Know: God’s Presence in Silence.
The subject of the book is controversial among evangelicals today, so I asked Chumley some tough questions.
If you’re new to this blog, I’m someone who is committed to the view that Jesus of Nazareth is this world’s true Lord and the only way to salvation, that the Bible is God’s authoritative, inspired, and reliable written Word (and the “sacred writings” of other religions are not), and that there is such a thing as false religions.
I’ve also given my beliefs on “mysticism” in my post, Mysticism – What I Really Believe About It.
Note that there are two kinds of “contemplation.” One that the Reformed teacher John Piper affirms. And the other that non-Christian Eastern religions affirm.
The two are often confused, but they are not the same.
That said, I thought Chumley had some interesting things to say and I especially enjoyed the historical references. And heaven knows, most Christians need to deepen their prayer lives. (I’ve contributed to solving this problem in my online course, Living by the Indwelling Life of Christ.)
As with any teaching, compare it with the Scriptures.
Enjoy the interview.
Instead of asking, “what is your book about,” I’m going to ask the question that’s behind that question. And that unspoken question is, “how are readers going to benefit from reading your book?”
Dr. Norris J. Chumley: My book and accompanying film are about the theologies and practices of silence and prayer, in antiquity, and today. People who are interested in deepening their prayers may discover new insights from reading the wisdom of saints and Christian sages, some of whom started the Church, built upon the Holy and pure teachings of Jesus Christ. Some may find that taking time for silent praise and contemplation every day, offers a whole new connection with our Lord and Savior.
Tell us a bit about the experiences that shaped the insights in the book.
Dr. Norris J. Chumley: I’ve been praying since I was a very young child, and always loved God, and wanted to dedicate my life in service to Him. I was fascinated about how we can petition the Lord in prayer, both spoken prayer like in Church, and also alone, by ourselves, silently. My life has been a quest to learn all I can about God, through His Son, Jesus Christ.
I decided to focus my education on seeking God, and discover what others had written and taught, so I enrolled in seminary, first intending to only take a class or two. I loved religious and theological study so much, that I ended up earning two masters degrees and a Ph.D., over an eight-year period. This book is a direct result of what I learned, in the desire to share with others.
How is your book different from the many other books on silence and prayer?
Dr. Norris J. Chumley: I’m not aware that there are any other books that combine ancient Christian wisdom, contemporary practices in monasteries and practical suggestions for lay readers – all together in one volume.
I also produced a companion film of the Christian hermits, monks and nuns who are featured in the book (accessed at www.bestillandknow.info). These people have never before been filmed or granted interviews because they live in total isolation, are it was a rare privilege and blessing to be allowed to record their teachings.
Also, I want to be clear: this book is not about meditation. Rather, it is about Christian prayer and the practices of prayer and silence, as mentioned in the Bible. To most Christians living in the West, although these are ancient practices, taking time for silence in the context of prayer may be something new.
Give us two or three insights from the book that would be helpful to Christians.
Dr. Norris J. Chumley: Jesus Christ Himself taught us that there are really only two practices that we need: love God, and love our neighbors. The Old Testament/Hebrew Bible teaching, “Be still and know that I am God,” from Psalm 46:10, teaches us to stop striving, be still (silent) and surrender to God, ending with “God is our refuge.” To me, that’s all about surrendering to God, being still, listening for God’s direction, and to then take that love and offer it to others.
Many of the saints and sages I write about in this book recommend combinations of prayer, daily silent contemplation, joining in Church communities, and helping our neighbors. It’s exciting to learn that these instructions for righteous living were being thought about and practiced so long ago, and that they are very much Christian.
Saint Antony in the late second and early third centuries put great emphasis on Scripture. Counseling that all of life must be true to the Gospel, St. Antony believed that the Bible was the only true instruction needed in life. When someone asked St. Antony what rules are the most important to follow, he replied, “Wherever you go, have God always before your eyes; in whatever you do or say, have an example from the Holy Scriptures; and whatever the place in which you dwell, do not be quick to move elsewhere. Keep these three things and you will live.” I visit the Monastery of St. Antony in my book and film, and the cave where he lived, in Upper Egypt.
Evagrius Pontus in the fourth century developed a doctrine of silent practice mostly centered on prayer. He wrote that prayer is an “ascent of the mind to God.” He believed that a permanent “prayer of the mind” or “mental” prayer is the central point of life for those who have dedicated their life to God.
Others wrote that prayer in silence “connects the mind to the heart,” such as taught by the monk, Father Teofil, and Archbishop Justinian – contemporary spiritual fathers.
What do you say to fundamentalist Christians who say that seeking God through silence isn’t Christian but is derived from false religions?
Dr. Norris J. Chumley: My first thought is to follow Christ’s teaching, “judge not, lest you be judged” found in Matthew 7.
But to honor and respond to your question… That’s an interesting assertion, I’d like to know what is behind a statement such as that, and which religions are they referring to? Perhaps it’s commenting on select eastern religions that utilize meditation. As I said earlier, “Be Still and Know: God’s Presence in Silence,” is not about meditation. It’s about Christian prayer and contemplation, which is totally a Christian practice and has been for centuries.
There are many faithful Christians who do practice silent contemplation, and prayer. There are also many evangelists who do, too.
Can you point to any Christians in the Reformed tradition who believed in seeking God through silence?
Dr. Norris J. Chumley: In general, the traditions of contemplation, prayer and silent worship have not been taught much in the west, especially in Reformed or Protestant Churches. However, there are a few that do practice them.
Members of the Society of Friends, otherwise known as “Quakers,” meet regularly in silent worship for the purpose of communing with God.
Centering Prayer, developed from the work of Thomas Keating, William Meninger, and Basil Pennington – all Christian ministers – worked to bring these ancient traditions back to modern worship.
Baptist preacher and evangelist Frederick Brotherton Meyer (1847–1929), who was a member of the Higher Life movement, taught and practiced silence as a way to petition God.
I believe that the practice of silent contemplation and prayer is a way to unite people and religions.
What do you say to the person who has tried to encounter the Lord through silence, but gets bored and feels nothing at all?
Dr. Norris J. Chumley: Keep trying. Don’t give up. I’d also say that for me, it’s not only about “feeling,” or a cure for boredom. One of the important truths I learned in researching and writing this book, and making the companion film, is that God is so magnificent, all-powerful, and all-pervasive – my mind, heart and senses are far too limited to ever be able to experience Him fully. As Father Nilus at St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai said when I interviewed him, “God is found in silence, and God grants me occasional glimpses of Himself.”
God gave me a mind, body, a heart, emotions, a soul, and five senses and that’s what I’m blessed with. So I need to use everything I’ve got in worshiping and praising Him. If my mind is bored, I am graced with the ability to shift to my heart and feel some love from God. If I’m not feeling something, perhaps what God is trying to teach me is that what I need isn’t physical or emotional. If I am not thinking what I want to think, I surrender my thoughts to God, and let Him do the thinking. If I am not hearing what I need, then I ask myself, am I truly listening and getting out of the way for God to be heard?
As they say in Twelve Step programs, “let go and let God.”
What practical steps would you give someone who is just beginning to encounter the Lord through silence?
Dr. Norris J. Chumley: For me, it’s like exercising my body. Being still, praying, and praising God every day, as much as possible, works my spiritual muscles! Rather, surrendering my ego, life, thoughts, feelings, worries and concerns into the care and grace of God – in other words – 100% dependence on God is what I need to do.
Almost half of my new book is about how people outside monasteries, convents and hermitages can use the practice of silence and prayer. It also might be very useful to delve deeper into the Bible with specific questions. And I highly recommend reading some ancient wisdom by Christians; ancient texts like St. John Climacus’s The Ladder of Divine Ascent, The Philokalia, or the Apophthegmata Patrum (Sayings of the Desert Fathers). They may offer a way to begin or build upon a practice of silence and prayer.
Thanks so much for inviting me to your blog.