Silence, it seems, is big business these days. My friend Mike leads silent retreats several times a year. He started with four guys, and now gets close to 80 wanting to go and experience something that is getting harder and harder to find in our day: Silence. I went away for a similar retreat last weekend. I needed to get away from the noise of life and listen to the one who most often speaks in a still, soft voice. And while the quiet was very welcome, one thing I was not prepared for was encountering just how big God is.
The retreat was in a monastery where I was invited to pray the offices with the monks who live and work there. I gladly went to most of the offices held in the church on their property. When you first enter the church you find six rows of chairs set out for the lay people, with a small, decorative wall separating this area from the monks’ carols. My first impression was how small and narrow the church is. There is a low ceiling where I sat (a balcony is above), and the whole section might only seat 40 or so people. Very small indeed.
Following the morning office of Lauds is the Eucharist, or Mass. And it’s at that time the gate in the small wall was opened so I and the other retreatants could go to the front of the church. We walked past the carols to a section where there were more chairs set out and … and there I saw just how wrong I was. This church wasn’t small. It was huge. The height and width and depth was far greater than I could have imagined from the spot in the back where I had been sitting.
The only time I could be in this largeness, though, was by coming forward for the Eucharist, the body and blood of Jesus. And that is when I realized this was not just a truth about this particular church. God had been inviting me to experience his bigness all along. If I have thought him to be small and narrow, it is only because I had been hanging back, not approaching him as he calls me to come. And he only calls in one way: through his body and through his blood.
It is the same call today that Jesus issued to those following him after the feeding of the 5,000. “Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” And it has the same effect today: Most, on hearing this, turn back. Â Most would rather ask, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?” That sounds so good, but who is really God in that case? Those doing the works become their own god. And Jesus was having none of that.
Come, eat my flesh. Drink my blood. This is the only door to the bigness of God. If we insist on doing the works ourselves, we will remain in the small, narrow confines of the back of the church. But if we do decide to go forward, no matter how large the front is, there is no room for our own accomplishments, our own efforts, our own will. There is room for one thing only: the dead Christ, on whom we are called to dine.
The dead Christ, on whom we are called to dine.
Does that offend you? It offended most of those who heard Jesus first say it. I mean, getting handed free bread and free fish is one thing. But all this talk about eating flesh and drinking blood? Now this so-called Messiah was just getting weird. The crowds left to find a more respectable teacher, one who would tell them what they could do, someone to outline the works of God for them. Hard work is good for the soul, right? Cannibalism is morbid and weird.
Then Jesus turned to the twelve disciples and asked, “Do you also want to leave?” That’s the question for you and me now. Do we want to leave? Faith is hard. Trusting Jesus is the hardest thing I have ever had to do. It is so much easier to sit in the back and do the works that please God. Yet by taking of Jesus’ body and blood I find that God is so much bigger than I ever imagined. And he is big without my help. He doesn’t need me to do anything in order for him to be much larger than I will ever need.
John Wilkinson talks about the absurdity of faith in his new book, No Argument for God: Going Beyond Reason in Conversations About Faith. In it he writes,
“Faith is difficult; it is hard to believe and requires risk and effort to grasp. Faith is wild and demands a lot from us as rational beings. Faith takes us on a crazy journey. By trying to make sense of things we bend the absurdities of faith to logic and make the way smooth. It is easy to believe in a faith that has been explained, but how likely are we to believe in a faith that violates everything we think we know about truth and reason?” (p. 35)
The key to the bigness of God is there for us all. It is the faith that the broken bread and the cup of wine is all we need. All are invited to dine, but most turn away without ever tasting of God as he truly is. Most prefer to be their own respectable god. I was that way for oh so many years. Now I have chosen to enter into the bigness of God through the death of his only son. I know it sounds like something a good Christian should have done a long time ago. I just seemed so, I don’t know, easy. Too easy. And yet once I went to the front of the church and saw how big God is and how I have to believe and not work, I was still faced with the question: “Do you also want to leave?” This time I said No, I would like to stay if I may. And he let me stay and dine with him.
For me, a Protestant, the partaking of the elements of the Eucharist was not permitted at this monastery, and I respect that. So, crossing my arms over my chest, I received a prayer of blessing from the priest instead. Yet I could still taste the bread and the wine somehow. Somehow Jesus still looked at me and said, Well done. Enter into the bigness of God.
I left as I entered–in silence. But in another way I left a totally different person. And the silence itself was now music in my soul. How can one ever be the same after encountering the Very Big God?