The night is dark and quiet. Very quiet. We are in a small French village and it is already past midnight. The village is so small and the night so deep that not a single person is awake anymore. No cars are on the streets, no birds sing. We can close our eyes and are surrounded by nothing but darkness. It is the perfect night for silence. But it is late November and cold. Even although there is no wind, the cold creeps through our clothes and we shiver. Where to go? The desire for silence and closeness to God is overwhelming. There is an old Roman church in the center of this little village. This church has been listening to prayers and offering silence for the last 1200 years. It will certainly have some mercy with us. Come on, let’s enter!
The door creaks, louder than we would want it to. And then all that welcomes us is peace. Utter and complete peace. It is almost pitch black in this church, a few candles burn in front of two icons. On one the Virgin Mary with her newborn son in her arms, on the other Jesus and the abbot of some long forgotten monastery. Jesus’ arm lies around the man’s shoulders. It is a gesture of support and love. They call it the Icon of Friendship. We sigh because what we see is beautiful and it touches our heart. How loud that sound is, this simple sigh. The walls of the church are so thick that all the sounds of the night are closed out, all the little creatures crawling around, the wind blowing in the trees, the breathing of the planet itself, all muted by these ancient stones.
Slowly we walk to the front of the church where there is carpet on the floor. Our craving for silence and prayer asks for something else than a bench and so we take our shoes off. The rustling of the carpet as we kneel down on it is almost deafening. We want to calm our senses, want to be fully in the presence of our God and so we sink down lower and lower until we lay there on our stomach, our head resting on our arms. We surrender, close our eyes and breathe out slowly. The carpet is warm under our skin. We are safe. The silence around us quickly seeps into our minds and calms all thoughts.
We are safe in the arms of our Lord where nothing can hurt us and nothing can disturb us. We are at peace with who we are, with the world we live in, with our life no matter how complicated it might be at the moment. We breathe in the warm scent of the carpet and we are home…
Until, yes, until we hear something. How can this be? A noise in the absolute silence of this church?! It penetrates our peace and forces itself right into the calmness of our mind. And then we realize what it is. The sound of our own breathing, so loud in this absolute silence that it disturbs us. So the only thing we can do is hold our breath, right? And so we do. We take a deep, deep breath and hold it. We hold it because our longing for silence is so great that we would feel lost and alone without it right now. And so we hold our breath and listen. Listen to the great and everlasting silence of God. Listen to it until we have to take another breath. And so for a while we are safe again.
Until, yes, until we hear something. How is that possible? We are holding our breath and there is still a sound?! A sound that comes from deep within us, steady and quiet but certainly there. It is our heartbeat that we hear. Even louder now that we are holding our breath. A sadness begins to darken our mood and cloud our mind. We cannot stop our heartbeat. We cannot reach that perfect silence, God’s silence. We will have to die to be with him. And is that not surprisingly consistent with what they teach us? In death we will be reunited with our Lord and Creator, our beloved God. Only in death will we be one with Him again. After our heartbeat stopped, only then will we be fully in His presence.
But then, as we lie there, ready to cry, ready to give up, still half desperately holding our breath, we hear something new. We hear… silence. Utter and complete silence. And in that silence we feel greatness, we feel joy and peace and above all that, we feel love. Right there in the moments of utter silence with our breath held, the moments between our heartbeats, we feel a presence so big and yet so completely rooted in us that it makes us shiver. A loving presence, a feeling of being cradled in the strongest arms. We feel our God right there in the utter silence between the heartbeats. He is right there, waiting for us, loving us even if we are not with Him all the time. And in those moments when we shake overwhelmed by something so great, something so divine in ourselves, we understand. We do not have to search God. We do not have to strive for God. We do not have to look for Him in churches, not even in the bible. We can do all those things but we don’t have to. Because God is right here. He is right here between our heartbeats, patiently awaiting us to welcome us into His love, His peace and His all consuming, all embracing silence.