Lithium was always my favorite element. Number three on the periodic table, it is one of the simplest atoms. It is the least dense (i.e. lightest) solid element, causing it to float in the mineral oil in which it is usually stored. It is stored under oil because, like the rest of the elements in the family of alkali metals, it is highly reactive and will ignite if exposed to the air. Its hyperreactivity is the product of its configuration. Possessing a single unpaired valence electron, lithium is desperate to bond with anything, seeking a more stable arrangement in which that single electron can be shared with a partner element. Lithium is so unstable that, in the natural world, it is never found by itself and is always observed having already reacted with something else.
Reactivity is a meaningful measure used in chemistry, but it can also be used to help evaluate our spiritual health. How reactive are you? How comfortable are you in anxious situations? Are you constantly bouncing from one emotional state to another, or are you able to let the ups and downs of life pass you by without jumping onto life’s roller coaster? When another driver cuts you off, does the anger within you barely simmer, or do you tailgate that car for two miles while the steam pours out of your ears? When you receive an e-mail or a text message that puts you on the defensive, do you wait a day or two before responding, or do you send out the first thing that comes to your mind? When someone you love is facing a crisis, do you stand by and cheer that person on, or do you jump into the situation without hesitation and start trying to solve the problem for yourself?
For human beings, reactivity is not just a product of a particular circumstance but is also a reflection of one’s spiritual configuration. Some situations require an immediate reaction—a kitchen fire, an automobile accident—but most of the interactions of life allow for a surprisingly slow response. Other people’s anger does not need to become our anger. Other people’s anxiety does not need to affect us at all. But how? How are some people able to confront even the most volatile of circumstances without breaking a sweat? Why are some people able to love highly reactive people without becoming reactive themselves?
Another word for spiritual and emotional unreactivity is peace, and peace takes practice. The most effective way that I have found to cultivate peace in my life is to spend time in silence. In the spiritual sense, silence is more than the mere absence of sound, and there are many different ways to seek it. Earlier this week, I read a piece in the Washington Post by psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal about the benefits of transcendental meditation, which is a particular method of spending fifteen to twenty minutes at a time in meditative focus. In that method, the practitioner uses a word or phrase called a mantra to focus his or her attention while the rest of the world and the cares and concerns it brings fade away into silence. Although at first he did not detect any substantial change in his own behavior, Rosenthal reported that, as his practice developed through the years, his friends and family noticed a big change. Their comments and observations confirmed for him how meditation had helped him let go of anger, anxiety, and reactivity to become more gentle, joyful, and patient.
Although transcendental meditation is not explicitly Christian, Christians have been using similar techniques to immerse themselves in spiritually beneficial silence since the first hermit monks secluded themselves in the desert as early as the third century. One method is Centering Prayer, in which the individual chooses a sacred word not as a focus for their concentration as with a mantra but as an invitation into the presence of God. Imagine using a word like “Jesus” or “grace” or “love” to set aside all of the noises of the world in order to reconnect with God during twenty minutes of silence. Another method is Lectio Divina, in which the individual reads a passage from the bible and sits in a prolonged silence to listen to what the Holy Spirit will say through the text. As with other forms of Christian silence, the benefit comes not from scrutinizing the passage as a traditional student might but from sitting knowingly in God’s presence. At the beginning of a bible study or before meeting with someone for spiritual direction, I invite us to sit in silence as a way for to release our need for answers and acknowledge, instead, that the presence of God is what we really seek. In my personal piety, I most often practice silence within the Daily Office, using a long pause after each reading as a way to pray not by forming in my mind unspoken words but simply by making myself available to God.
I cannot say whether intentional silence makes me a better husband, father, or clergyperson, but I do know that, when I have drifted away from the practice, I become more reactive. I carry more anger and anxiety with me into every conversation. I receive each critical text message and e-mail with a diminished capacity for patience. When offering pastoral care, I find it harder to let go of my needs and focus on the needs of others.
Is your fuse a little shorter than it used to be? Are you angry or anxious at things that have not always bothered you? Is someone you love struggling in a way that seems to be dragging you down with that person? Silence is not a cure-all, but the practice of silence brings us in touch with the one who is in control—the God of love and peace and hope.