“Peace! Be still!” (Mk. 4:35-41)
What were you doing this time last year? This question has been cropping up across social media lately as we revisit the landmarks of the early pandemic just one year ago.
On March 27th of last year I was alone in my apartment, looking on through a computer screen as Pope Francis made his way across a rain-swept empty St. Peter’s square to deliver a special Urbi et Orbi blessing on the whole world while the coronavirus pandemic raged through Italy and spread around the world.
The live stream I was watching had no translator, but I knew the story well enough. It was from the fourth chapter of Mark’s gospel–the story of Jesus asleep in the boat while his disciples were terrified by a mighty storm. When they woke Him, Jesus calmed the storm with just a few simple words. “Peace! Be still!”
“Be still before the Lord; wait for him.” (Psalm 37:7)
What does it mean to be still?
We can think of it as a kind of persevering… Still waiting… Still hoping… Still grieving… Still weary… Still going…
We can think of tranquility, like the “still waters” of Psalm 23.
We can picture it as a sort of motionlessness… holding your breath while hiding in a game of hide and seek or the freeze-frame snapshot of a still life painting.
This sense of motionlessness tends to be my first thought when I hear the word still. I like to picture a frazzled parent trying to strap a toddler into a car seat.. Just sit still.
“The Lord will fight for you, you have only to keep still.” (Ex. 14:1-31)
With that image in mind, I was perplexed to find this word coming to my heart in prayer in the midst of a great deal of motion in my life. Movements I had made in response to the Lord’s own invitation.
This past August I moved to Minneapolis to live at Bethany House, a house for women discerning religious life. In the fall He brought me across the country to visit a monastery. At the end of May I’ll reach the end of the nine month program here and it will be time to move again. And find a new job. And go visit that monastery again.
So what exactly could the Lord be getting at with an invitation to be still? That’s not really an option right now, Jesus!
But as I looked more closely at each of the scripture verses that had been coming up in prayer, I discovered something intriguing. Whatever the context, Old Testament or New, Hebrew or Greek, in each instance the word translated as “still” referred explicitly to silence. Oh.
Be quiet. Listen.
“And after the fire a still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12)
My research led me to a beautiful reflection by Rabbi Mike Commins on the story of Elijah encountering the Lord in the “still small voice” on Mt. Sinai. It’s a vivid meditation on the experience of desert silence, a silence we all enter into on our Lenten journey.
While Elijah hid in the cave, calamity stormed outside. First wind, then earthquake, and then fire. Only after these pass by does Elijah recognize the presence of the Lord, coming to him in what Commins calls a “voice of fragile silence”..
I don’t know what storms have passed your way this year, but I do know that the voice of the Lord is waiting for you on the other side. So before rushing headlong into whatever scraps of normal we can find on the other side of a tempestuous year, let’s take a moment to be still. Let all the opinions, the grievances, and even the hopes within your heart bubble up and fall silent.
“Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10)
Be still before the Lord. After the wind and the earthquake and the fire, step gently out of whatever cave you’ve been sheltering in and listen for the whisper of the Lord.
I invite you to spend some time this Holy Week praying with the scriptures. Take one of the passages linked in this post, pray with the Passion narrative, or follow another passage that comes to your heart.
The Lord is here. He has a word for you. Even if it is only, “I love you”. Even if it is only, “Be still”. Allow yourself to listen, to be still, to be with Him.
Copyright 2021 Mary Conway