This single verse from the Book of Psalms has inspired many contemplatives among the families of the biblical tradition. There is a well-known chant in Christian circles that begins with the whole verse and progressively shortens to the single word Be. It recalls the ‘still small voice’ or the ‘gentle breeze’ in the story of Elijah hiding in the desert and eventually finding God in stillness and silence rather than in storm and drama (1 Kings 19:12). This verse of Psalm 46 reveals the silent, often overlooked, dimension of contemplation at the heart of all religious traditions. Elijah hears, or experiences, an all-important question from God after the storm, fire and earthquake: What are you doing here? The key to the Be Still verse however is not in a question. God usually teaches by confronting us with questions rather than by giving answers. We prefer answers because they are easier and give us the feeling of being right. The meaning of this psalm verse, however, is in its own context.
It is worth pondering or, as the desert monks said of scripture ‘chewing over’. We can then discover why it links stillness with knowledge. This is surprising to the left hemisphere part of us because knowledge seems something we need to pursue and acquire and then use. You won’t pass an exam by sleeping with the text book under your pillow. Study or intentional activity – doing something in order to get a result – is how we usually get conscious knowledge. In this sense knowledge is power. If we have more of it than others we are stronger and we should also earn more with it.
If, however, the right hemisphere is not suppressed or ridiculed, as it often is, we will see that there is more than one kind of knowledge. There is also knowledge that comes from unknowing. It is different from the knowledge that we have to pursue, acquire and apply. There is also the non-dual knowledge that rises quietly in pure stillness. It comes precisely when we are not pursuing it, watching it or trying to quantify it.
Coming to this stillness sounds easy. But it is not like taking a weekend at a spa or having down time for an evening with NetFlix. It is certainly important to learn how to relax, especially because we suffer so much today from the complications of stress. Relaxation is a good by-product of the work of stillness – for which the rich Greek word is hesychia. Rest, quiet and silence also describe it. But relaxation, even when necessary for health, is not the first goal of contemplative stillness.
The context of this verse is war, violence and conflict:
He makes wars to cease to the end of the earth; He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two; He burns the chariots with fire.
The stillness invoked here is the power that arrests and overcomes violence. It breaks the instruments of war and destroys the weapons of destruction. The contemplative, armed with the knowledge of God that comes from true, full stillness is mightier than the intoxicated forces of war. Peace is not an escape from conflict or a denial of it. It is the energy that reconciles those in conflict. It is a ‘peace that transcends all understanding’ (Philippians 4:7).
The knowledge of God is not merely our knowledge of God – always limited by our egocentricity – but primarily God’s knowledge of us. This is always whole and opens new beginnings for us when we have messed things up.