The more I think about it, the more I believe that the purpose of church is to teach us to sit still. Now, I understand how this can seem stifling, but I honestly don’t think this is a bad lesson to learn. Sitting still is a skill that we are lacking more and more.
I run the children’s ministry in our church and almost every week we talk about what it means to be reverent. This last week (and the previous two weeks), the children talked about a working definition. There’s a song we sing about what reverence involves (“Reverence is more than just quietly sitting…”), but it’s one thing to sing the words and another for the children to think about them. The littlest ones, when asked, said that being reverent meant sitting in your chair, keeping your feet still, not talking, not poking your neighbor, and so forth. The littlest ones have learned the principle of reverence as a negation of action rather than as an act in its own right. I feel like that is a failure on my part, but I can’t think of a better way to approach it. Before you can be reverent, you do have to stop being irreverent. The older children, though, seem to have moved beyond that limited understanding. “When you’re reverent,” said one child, “you’re thinking about Jesus and how you feel about Him.” This reflection is the active part of reverence. Even if these children are not able to really do this all the time, it is gratifying to hear that they understand the principle.
For me, sitting still and reverence are not synonymous, but they are related. My definition for both involves an inner state of being that is only occasionally related to one’s physical being. So yes, reverence involves sitting quietly, but it also involves an inward yearning for connection with the Divine. There may be times when true reverence requires physical action. Sitting still can involve the physical act of not moving, but there’s more to stillness than sustaining the lotus position for a given period of time. Of course I mean that I think it is important for us to develop inner stillness. I don’t think the world is ever going to calm down. I don’t think our lives ever slow down. That’s ok. If we are able to cultivate a stillness within ourselves, a place within that welcomes interaction with the Divine or a place that is safe and quiet or place within like a cooling stream that washes our frustrations away, then our busy lives are more manageable.
Obviously, since I am an LDS Christian, there are certain traditions of fostering inner stillness that I participate in. Temple attendance is one LDS contemplative action. There are so many symbols involved in temple worship and one that I think I can speak of is the action of attending that still, calm place. The metaphor of the body as a temple is a common one. Attending the temple regularly can teach us to value still places and to become familiar with them. This familiarity allows us to emulate that stillness. Another thing I do is to pray, which I guess is a pretty obvious one. The other major thing that I do regularly is to participate in the Sacrament. In our church, as in many others, the time of the Lord’s Supper is one conducted theoretically in silence. I reflect not just on my relationship with the Divine, but also on how I’ve done in the previous week and on how I need to change. I have no intention of discussing that private time in further detail, but the reverence of those moments helps me cultivate inner stillness when I’m elsewhere. Now, I’m not saying that I’m perfect at always having this stillness, but I am saying that these practices help me. Other faiths have other traditions that are equally beneficial. Even people who claim no particular belief participate in things that help to ground them and encourage emotional peace in their lives.
I know I’m not covering any new ground here. Simone Weil, Eugene England, Eckhart Tolle, Mother Teresa, C.S. Lewis and many, many other far more erudite people have considered the principle of stillness and its necessity in our lives. Lots of people who are not at all erudite have considered it as well. Frequently the necessity of church is in question by other believers. Sometimes we comfort ourselves when members of our congregation offend us by saying that the Gospel is true, even if its members aren’t. I think, like Professor England, that the Church is as true as the Gospel, though. He covers the topic thoroughly, so I won’t discuss that in depth. I do want to point out that I need church to teach me how to be still. I need church to help me learn how to focus my thoughts, my breathing, my belief, and my relationship with God no matter how many babies are teething or toddlers are talking. I need church to teach me how this ambient noise is just part of the environment in which Christ is enacted. Just as Christ joined us here on Earth without losing His Divinity, we need to learn how to remain ourselves, to remain still, while joining our environments.