It was not your typical ballet. No tutus. No violins. No toe shoes. The orchestra consisted of a small ensemble seated onstage playing very pensive Japanese music on traditional Japanese instruments. A dancer wearing a long ceremonial robe walked slowly, very, very slowly to the center of the stage and dropped his robe to the floor.
Half an hour later, the tempo remained the same. I kept thinking, "Any minute now they're going to pick up the pace and really start dancing." Finally it dawned on me, "This is it. This is the ballet." I wasn't sure how I felt about that. I was expecting to be wowed by the legendary speed and virtuosity of the New York City Ballet dancers. Instead I was restless and fidgety. And that bothered me more than the unorthodox choreography.
What was going on? I think that my New York City rhythm had hit a wall of stillness and didn't quite know what to make of it. I sat there in the dark, listening to the gentle, wistful music, watching the graceful, yet oh, so controlled dancers, when it occurred to me that perhaps the point of this ballet was not the form, but the quality. Perhaps the intention was not so much to entertain or impress, as to invite the audience to enter a place and a rhythm that were restful and still. I decided that if I could surrender to this gentle, soothing quality, it might be a very healing thing.
It's a lesson that's been reinforced many times in the intervening years: the value of stepping back from the busyness of life just to be still, to pray, to listen, to dwell quietly on the sacred things of life.
Apparently Jesus understood this well. He gave very generously of himself to the people who came to him for help. The Gospels relate that he was often surrounded by crowds of people clinging to him for healing, for counsel, for inspiration. And yet he took long breaks, seeking out solitude, often spending all night in prayer. So in tune was he with the rhythm of Love's regenerating presence that he simply could not be swept away by the press of the crowd, or the urgency of the need. Always calm, always measured, always sure of God's control, he could subdue the most turbulent storm with the words, "Peace, be still."
A groundbreaking thinker and author on the practice of spirituality, Mary Baker Eddy, described stillness this way: "Certain moods of mind find an indefinable pleasure in stillness, soft, silent as the storm's sudden hush; for nature's stillness is voiced with a hum of harmony, the gentle murmur of early morn, the evening's closing vespers, and lyre of bird and brooklet" ("Christian Science vs. Pantheism," page 3).
How can we find more of this healing stillness in our lives?
For me the quest begins with simply valuing it, praying for it, believing in its potential. I've also discovered that it doesn't really work to say, I'll enjoy some stillness just as soon as I've finished all my work. Jesus didn't do that; he interrupted the work, sent the crowds away, and took time to refuel spiritually . And his work, rather than being compromised by this practice, was extraordinarily effective.
It's also been important to acknowledge that there is an underlying spiritual dimension to life that is real and tangible. We don't create stillness. Stillness exists. We adjust ourselves to that fact by accepting it as fact. "Be still, and know that I am God" (Ps. 46:10) expresses the demand to honor an eternal, governing presence, rather than to try to manufacture stillness by managing human circumstances and emotions. God is, He is good, He is present, and He cares for me.
Those simple facts have healing implications under any circumstances. The more deeply and humbly I accept those facts, the greater and more tangible the peace I feel, even in the midst of severe trials and challenges.
I spoke with one of the dancers after the ballet. She said that wherever they performed "Watermill," audiences either loved it or hated it. I learned to love it, but not for the dancing. I loved it for what it taught me about the power of stillness.
Many years later, I saw this rendition of Psalms 46:10 that epitomizes for me the lesson that began with "Watermill":
Be still, and know that I am God
Be still, and know that I am
Be still, and know