Photo: Denise Civiletti

At the start of each new year, I ask the Lord for a word to ponder in the next 365 days. The word that popped into my head as I prayed was “silence.” I immediately began to question God.

“Didn’t we have enough silence in 2020 with all the quarantines and isolation? I think I’m good.”

Talking and listening to God is not like any other conversation with a person. It’s more like pondering a work of art; there’s always more.

So I sat with the word “silence.”

I thought about the ways more silence has been added to my life. I don’t talk on the phone as much as I used to before the pandemic started. I used to make phone calls while I was doing chores around the house to get things done quicker. I made a lot of the calls to schedule appointments or catch up with a friend while I was busy working on routine things. I used to be pretty good at multi-tasking.

But as things started to shut down in the world last March, I found I needed to talk less and think more. There weren’t so many things to schedule or events to discuss and plans to be made. It sounds kind of depressing, but truthfully I was kind of relieved. My focus was at home where my daughter most needs me to be.

The last three years since we moved into this house have been very busy. We were renovating the house inside and out — fighting with rodents, plumbing, and locust roots that grew out of the ground while we slept.

My husband affectionately called it “the Jumanji house”. I opted to focus on the sound of the surf and the winter water views and named our home “The Lighthouse.” Now that weed trees are under control, my husband agrees.

Only months into our renovations, Jo’s shunt malfunctioned and a flurry of hemorrhages threw her brain and our lives into chaos. Over the next two years, she had over 10 surgeries and numerous infections. We spent weeks in and out of the hospital during 2018 and 2019.

When the family gathered in Illinois for a family wedding in February of 2020, Jo was just too exhausted from months of hospitalizations and surgeries and so she and I stayed home. When the pandemic and shutdowns happened weeks later, I was so glad we had stayed home.

I found solace in focusing on caring for Jo and keeping her busy and safe at home. We expanded our vegetable garden, planted more perennials in the flower gardens, started raising chickens and watching the birds.

I found peace in the silence of nature in my garden, with the chickens, and while watching the birds. Life was slower and quieter in 2020, so I thought the word “silence” that was entering into my new year meditations was maybe just in gratitude for the gift of days left behind.

For all the silence of 2020, the year ended in chaos in the world and at home.

Contested elections and debates over vaccines and wearing masks brought out the worst in family and friends. The limitations of online interactions caused people to leave connections and kindness aside.

Rising COVID rates concerned me greatly as I watched Jo’s health decline in November, culminating with three hospitalizations and two brain surgeries in a matter of six days.

The slow and quiet Advent I had hoped to enjoy at home was waylaid by a car accident, hospitalizations and surgeries. I celebrated my birthday, Christmas Eve and Christmas morning in the post-op neuro unit at NYU. But coming home later on Christmas Day and celebrating the season quietly at home helped ease the chaos that ensued.

The silence I experienced in 2020 was interrupted by the chaos of the year’s end and this traumatic beginning of 2021. As I pondered the silence, the word “stillness” emerged. I know all too well that it is very possible to be silent and not to be still.

These days, I have plenty of silence. But I am not always still in my mind and in my soul.

Silence comes from controlling external circumstances to create a quieter environment in which to be still. But even when everything is quiet around us; the interior disposition of our minds and souls could still be in chaos as anxious thoughts and discord disturb our peace.

I often silence my phone and set it to vibrate mode so that I am not distracted by notifications. It helps to keep a quiet environment. But if I am on my phone — especially scrolling through my news feed on Facebook — I am not experiencing stillness.

Conversely, I can be in an atmosphere of chaos without silence and yet be still because stillness comes from within. Stillness is a state of being which is cultivated by surrendering to God.

Twelve-step programs help people to focus on finding stillness in the midst of chaos through surrendering to a higher power greater than ourselves. If you’re unsure of God, you have only to go outside on a dark night and watch the stars, or rise early to see the sunrise, to understand that a power greater than ourselves is at work in creation and in our lives.

Being in nature helps to cultivate stillness and surrender to God. Surrendering the chaos and the quiet times to God helps us to nurture stillness.

When I am still within, I make better decisions. I am able to forgive and love myself and others and renew my strength to face the day.

I am most still in the early morning hours — even before the sunrise. There is something to taking the time to pray just before dawn. As the darkness yields to the light, the Spirit illuminates my mind, heart, and soul — giving me strength for the day.

I was reading Psalm 1 the other day:

“Happy are they
who do not follow the counsel of the wicked,
Nor lingers in the path of sinners,
or sits in the company of scorners;

but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law, they meditate day and night.

They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.”

The verbs in verse one are good descriptions of how easy it is to get sucked into the bad news and chaos all around us. Following wicked counsel, lingering in the sin of judgments, condemnation, and even hatred, and sitting in the company of scornful, scoffing people is easy to do when we are connected to our phones on social media — even in the quiet of our own homes.

But when we recapture the quiet and focus on the goodness of God, a stream of living waters — a stillness — pervades our minds and nourishes our souls, giving us strength for the days ahead.

I encourage you to create quiet places in your home and to get outside in nature to nurture silence — and learn to be still. Take a walk, plant a garden, watch the birds. Find some space to breathe.

Even when the world around us is heading on a path of self-destruction and in utter chaos, we have the freedom to choose quiet and nurture stillness within. There, in the stillness, we can make peace with God and ourselves, which will help us to offer peace to others in this contentious world.

From the place of stillness, we find our hope and our peace.
Be still and pray for peace.

“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.” Ephesians 2:14.

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Eileen Benthal
Eileen is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a bachelor’s degree in theology from Franciscan University. She and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Email Eileen