A desperate executive sought the counsel of an old guru who lived in a mountain cave. The executive was living a harried and hurried life. He was frustrated, his prayers were powerless, and his soul was tired. The holy man listened to his guest for a while, then retreated deep into his cave, returning shortly with a basin.
He scooped water from the muddy little stream passing by the mouth of the cave and offered it to the executive to drink. Of course, the executive rejected it, even though he was very thirsty from his journey. The water was far too dirty.
After a while he offered the water again, but this time, all the silt had settled to the bottom of the basin and the water was clear and pristine. The man readily drank it. The wise man then asked, “What did you do to make the water clean?” The man answered, “I didn’t do anything.”
“Exactly!” said the old monk. “Your life is dark and troubled; it is disturbed and muddy because you are always allowing the water to become agitated. Only when it is calm will you have peace. So do nothing. Be still and let the water settle.”
Be still. That’s harder than it sounds, no doubt, but it is one of the best things for the health of our souls. Learn to turn down the noise (and stop contributing to the noise). Learn to cultivate some distance from this clamorous world, because distance is a good thing when it comes to things and people who are harmful. Learn, by healthy boundaries to keep the raucous environment that is contemporary society at arm and ear’s length, and you might begin to let the water of your own soul peacefully settle.
I don’t have to work very hard to convince you that this world is a noisy place, do I? Talking heads, radio and viewpoint shows, 24-hour news, analysis on every hand, opinions like armpits: Court is always being held, comments are always being made, and there is a constant eagerness to share the oh-so-correct perspective. There’s always someone babbling about something, and the air becomes so saturated with pandemonium, it seeps into our souls.
Jesus understood this. He once instructed his disciples, “When you pray, close the door and pray to your Father who is unseen…do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them.” What a stark and necessary correction. Even in prayer, the “fewer the words the better,” it seems.
“Do not be like them,” Jesus says. That is, “Don’t be like this ear-splitting world that thinks loud opinions will actually be heard. Don’t put on a show with your yammering, bloviated prattle. Shut up. Be still. Get quiet.” It’s good for you, not to mention how everyone else will appreciate is as well.
It’s not unlike the familiar story from Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration as told by Skip Heitzig. Once, at a special dinner, Johnson was hosting a few members of his staff, and he called upon one of the men to say grace. The man, named Jim, began to pray and President Johnson, in his brash, demanding way interrupted. He said, “Speak up, Jim, I can’t hear you.” Jim answered, “With all due respect, Mr. President, I wasn’t talking to you.”
Oh, that’s exactly what Jesus is teaching his disciples. Too often, far too often, public prayer (much of religious instruction, actually) is not an invitation to stillness and humility before God. It is an invitation to commotion. It is “babble,” or “vain repetition” as the King James Version translates Jesus’ instructions. It is foolish rambling, tedious chattering, words that continue to stack up, but never really mean anything.
I have a friend who noted recently the the words “”listen” and “silent” are spelled with exactly the same letters and mean the same thing. And I think stillness is the quickest way to hear God, to “let the water settle,” and find true peace.