The Depth Of Stillness

As we progress along the spiritual path, we hit peaks and valleys. Sometimes we may lose our way altogether for a time. Other times, it feels like we’re exactly where we’re supposed to be: experiencing the fullness of divine love and joy.

But along the path we need help. For a lot of contemplatives today, this help comes in the form of authors like Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, Thomas Keating, and Cynthia Bourgeault.

We might call these the sages; they’re people of deep learning with a gift for communicating profound, complex truths in accessible language and vivid images.

But along the path we also need guides. People who feel a little closer to home, people who are on the path but maybe just a little bit ahead of us, who face the same challenges we face, but who also have a deep understanding of the contemplative dimension of life.

Author Amos Smith is one such guide. And his book Be Still And Listen feels like a culmination of sorts – blending the wisdom of his learning and writing with his experience both as a pastor and long-time contemplative practitioner. It’s a practical book, with personal reflections drawn from everyday experience.

There’s a hard-won wisdom just beneath the surface. And Smith goes to great lengths in the book to situate contemplative insights in Scripture, using them to both punctuate a given insight like the analogy between the still words of God the Counselor and his aging grandfather – you had to lean in close to listen to the gentle wisdom from the Ancient of Days (Daniel 7:9).

Smith touches on many common aspects of the contemplative life: contemplation and action, the quality of contemplative silence, the practice of Centering Prayer, the habit of resting in God and being at home in prayer, falling in love with the natural world, solitude, self-emptying, and freedom, moving toward wholeness and the true self.

Smith has a clear grasp of some of the challenges facing contemplatives as well, acknowledging that this process of letting go is not always easy: “This is the paradox. Saints find themselves in God because they let go of their puny selves. This humility of the saints drops personal agendas and surrenders to the sacrament of the present moment as it unfolds. The self-serving agenda is burned up in the flames of self-emptying.”

Smith is able to recontextualize some of the more tattered and worn passages of Scripture by situating them in the contemplative tradition, like the 23rd Psalm, Jesus’s journey into the desert, or passages from the Old Testament: “For thus said the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, ‘In returning to rest you shall be saved, in quietness and trust shall be your strength.’”(Is 30:15)

Whereas earlier writings from Smith had a touch of academic heft, this book feels fluid and accessible. It’s simple, folksy, and homespun, but profound, like a story from the Barefoot Galilean.

We get the sense, following St. Thomas’s distinction between the active life, the contemplative life, and a combination of the two, that it is this combination, this boundary territory where Smith feels most at home. It’s here on the borderlands between active and contemplative that he dwells. It’s here that the wisdom comes from.

This is in part what makes this book unique in the contemplative landscape. Smith is not a monastic, though he draws heavily from the wisdom of monastics and contemplatives both East and West.

With stories from his life as a pastor, as a layman, as a kid, a family man, a traveler, a hiker, from Scripture to Eastern wisdom stories to the Philokalia, and with brief touches from India to Phoenix, this is one of the better entry points to engaging life as a modern contemplative with everything that entails with a fully mature contemplative as a trusted guide, someone who understands the simple but profound wisdom of the invitation to be still and listen for the movement of the divine.

Going Further

Be Still And Listen by Amos Smith (Paraclete Press)

An interview with Amos Smith by Dr. Steve McSwain (video)

Amos’s blog