Chapter Two: Heaven Begins Within You
Staying by Oneself
When I was in high school, one of my English teachers received a phone solicitation encouraging her to enroll in an Evelyn Wood Speed Reading class. “What would you think,” the excited telemarketer asked her, “if I told you that we can teach you how to read the entirety of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in under four minutes?!”
“I would be horrified,” my English teacher responded.
Staying productive and on the move are important values in our culture. It amazes me that here in Houston, where there’s a family-owned Mexican restaurant on almost every corner, the Drive-Thru line at my neighborhood Taco Bell is frequently hopping.
Dashboard dining and speed-reading might horrify foodies and teachers of literature, but they certainly play well to our hopes for getting more done and staying on the move.
But there’s one aspect of our lives in which speed and productivity actually work against us – our knowledge and experience of God.
The psalmist puts it simply, “Be still and know that I am God.” (46:11) Or, as the desert monastics put it, “Go into your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” And the important thing for the desert fathers and mothers was to stay in your cell. Don’t move around. This value of “stability” or “staying” would of course become a fundamental value of Benedictine monasticism that not only deepened spiritual learning but helped preserve civilization itself.
If “heaven begins within you” as Anselm Gruen’s book title says, then we have to learn to be alone with ourselves, where heaven begins. The mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone.” If we cannot sit quietly in a room alone, then we cannot pray as Jesus taught us. “When you pray,” he said, “go into your room and shut the door, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you there.” (Mt 6:6)
There’s a popular daily program for reading the entire Bible in a year entitled, “The Bible Challenge.” The idea appeals to our desire to be active, productive, and to get stuff done. I’m sure The Bible Challenge is a good thing for some people. But for me, at the end of that year of daily readings, when I had the satisfying accomplishment of having read the Bible cover to cover, I might wonder what I had magnified more – God or my ego.
Don’t get me wrong. I think reading the Bible each day is a good thing. But sometimes just focusing on a single verse is more valuable than several chapters. “For God alone, my soul in silence waits.” (Ps 62:1) Such bite-sized reminders are plenty for me most days.
But what if we spent more time actually praying as Jesus taught us to pray – just being still and alone with God in secret? It’s good to read about God in the Bible. But what if we spent more time surrendering to the actual presence and activity of God?
I feel pretty certain that I know what most of us would feel about simply being still with God in secret. We’d be bored out of our minds. With The Bible Challenge, at least we’d be DOING something! Anselm Gruen writes, “In my cell, I no longer have the possibility of diverting myself, of seeking refuge in activities, of sailing off into daydreams. … Then God presses in on me. God challenges everything that I have thought up about him and about my life.” (p. 34)
But these times alone with God in our inner room with the door shut, they are often first of all terribly boring. We might confront our desire to be productive or to reach for distractions. But if we can persevere, then some truly painful stuff can start to happen. Repressed memories might begin to surface. Self-doubt and even self-loathing can beset us. “How could I have behaved that way with someone I loved?” “Why can’t I be kinder or more patient or more generous?” “What’s WRONG with me?!”
We start to realize how much we unconsciously repress, and we might begin to wonder, how much energy am I expending on repressing these less desirable parts of my life, without even knowing it? No wonder we don’t like to go into our cell and stay put. What our cell has to teach us is often a lot of stuff we’d rather forget or repress, whatever the cost.
But if we can stick with it, if we can persevere in what Jesus and the desert monastics urged us to do, then over time, we might start to sense a Presence. It’s a Presence that envelops and embraces even our difficult thoughts, feelings, and painful memories. He’s been waiting there all along – in the very places we have avoided.
That’s when it might dawn on us why the most frequently repeated command in the Bible – the command uttered by prophets, sages, angels, Jesus, and God himself – is “Do not be afraid.” He is not there to condemn or to chastise but to love, heal, and give us rest.
It’s been a lot of work repressing parts of ourselves that we were ashamed of, but those are the parts he has embraced, dwelt in, and loved all along. When we start to sense the truth of this, we might begin to know in our still bodies what our active and distracted minds could never understand: Heaven begins within us.