Still Waters

Twelve years it’s been since I’ve faithfully attended Sunday School.

Sacrament? Check. Relief Society? Check check. But that forty-five minutes in between – I just can’t quite face it. I don’t object to the lesson manuals (generally speaking). And I hear we have a dynamic teacher these days. It’s the sitting. For three hours.

Luckily, LDS buildings are rife with pianos. And so I steal away to practice – hymns mostly. These days I have an official excuse: I am the Relief Society pianist. I practice in the Relief Society room for the presidency, teachers, and other women who can’t quite manage the second hour. And each week people approach me with gratitude for the background music as they talk and prepare – as if my restlessness is counterfeiting as a service.

I just emerged from a seven-hour professional development – nothing like being lectured at for seven hours to give you immediate empathy for middle school students. I’m exhausted, agitated. I cursed myself for forgetting my knitting – something to calm my darting mind.

My a-religious husband has noted that he views “learning to sit still and observe ceremony” as a potential positive advantage of having our children attend church. He, of course, learned this trait as a child in a starched shirt, sitting through endless dinner parties hosted by Viennese psychoanalysts. Sitting still is different from reverence, clearly. Sitting still is also different from being still. I felt anything but still this afternoon, as I sat politely, watching the clock tick tock tick. And when I think back to dark moments when anxiety has caused physical “stillness,” the phrase “Be still and know that I am God” has surfaced as a mantra.

I hear a Buddhist service is also three hours – of meditation. Practice at stillness and being still. Without the latter, is the former really a virtue? Must the physical and spiritual both be at rest to follow the commandment to “be still?”


Deborah is K-12 educator who nurtures a healthy interest in reading, writing, running, ethics, mystics, and interfaith dialogue.

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  1. sarah says:

    I began meditating again last month, and the other day I had a real transcendental moment of grace–I felt totally at peace, calm, still, forgiving, and connected to God for the first time in many, many months…I meditated for more than an hour, but it really felt like minutes (a miracle for someone with ADD and Tourettes). My meditation sessions since that day have not procured the same intense results, but they are helping me quiet my mind of my own thoughts so I can be open to listening.

    I can’t make it through 3 hours of church. I can’t sit through any kind of meeting without doodling, figeting, daydreaming, making side comments, etc. The great thing about meditation is that with practice, you are able to just “be” as you sit — you don’t worry about things, you don’t think about the past or the future, you don’t run your to-do list through your head, you aren’t thinking about what you want for lunch, you are just still. And, it helps you be “still” in other times and places — such as church. So maybe someday I’ll make it to Sunday School! Then again, I might just find a room in the chapel to meditate in.

    There was a good article about meditation in the most recent Sunstone. Another great book about meditation, stillness, and spiritual awakening is “After the Ecstacy, the Laundry.”

  2. Deborah says:

    sarah (different from my sister sarah, I assume):

    It’s encouraging that you’ve had such success with meditation in such a short period of time . . . I have this persistant, nagging feeling (can the spirit talk that way?) that formal meditation would be good for my soul, for adding a measure of physical/spiritual stillness.

    I hadn’t heard of the book you reference, but I must admit I love the title — brilliant!

  3. jana says:

    You might want to try an unprogrammed Quaker Meeting for Worship sometime. It’s shorter than LDS services (generally an hour), and almost all meditation. Lovely.

    I meditate each morning after I get out of the shower. I light a candle or burn some incense and sit in a lotus position on my bed. For me, the warmth and relaxation of just havig stepped out of the shower helps me to meditate. It’s harder at other times of the day.

    That said, I’ve always thought Sunday School was the best part of the block. But it all depends on the teacher.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Well, you’ll be pleased to know that sunday school is only (at most) 40 minutes, not 45.

    Our block starts with sacrament, and if sacrament meeting runs over (which it does a lot) then SS is short by that amount; I still make sure that people get the full 10-minute break before Sunday School because I agree with you that it is hard to sit for 3-hours straight. Hopefully this gives folks a chance to move around, take a walk outside, whatever.

    I also use a microphone, partly because of voice damage a few years back, partly for the older folks using the headphones to enhance hearing, partly for the moms in the lounge with their babies. And it also goes out into the foyer, and one person with back problems has explained that she loves the lessons but listens from out there because it is more comfortable to walk around.

    I also have a couple folks who regularly do needlework during my class, so your knitting would be fine. I am also thrilled when people stop in for 10 minutes, even if they can’t stay the entire time.

    So I don’t think it is required to “sit still” for the entire itme. You seem to be “horribilizing,” making this more negative than it is, in order to justify your actions.

    If you are truly not able to attend Sunday School, then I hope you are doing scripture study elsewhere, either a more convenient institute class or home study. Because it really is important to KNOW what we believe.

  5. Tam says:

    With respect, anonymous, I disagree with your comments. Even with the best of teachers, Sunday School is not everyone’s cup of tea. Your comments are an example of the idea (my perception – maybe it’s not shared by others) that everyone at church is supposed to be a certain way – supportive of all church programs by attendance and positive attitudes, cheerful and encouraging at all times, warm, happy and fuzzy, etc., and if they are not, they are disobedient and displeasing to God. I don’t think this idea has much merit. For some, Sunday School can be a miserable experience and a time-waster. I think that we as a community should let people be who they are rather than expect everyone to fit a certain mold. Individuals ought to feel free to find an alternate activity that allows for their individual growth instead of stymieing it. I think it’s best to assume that God is happy with their decision and that they do not need to justify their actions to Him or to their fellow members. And, if such individuals ever come to represent a significant population, then maybe it’s time for a new and additional Sunday School classroom format. Maybe something along the lines of the Quaker meditation service?

    As for “knowing” what we believe, knowledge and truth are gained from many different avenues and some could argue that Sunday School is one of the least of them. Diversity of personality and thought is a good thing, not a bad thing. That’s why there are many mansions in the heavens, of all different colors, sizes, architectural styles, etc. I’m sure you are a fabulous teacher for those (seemingly the majority of members) who find edification in the current Sunday School format – keep up the good work. For those few who quietly and without rancor find an alternate means of schooling…well…let’s leave ‘em alone.

    And, ahem, my experience is that Sunday School is often 45 minutes or longer because for some reason, many Sunday School teachers can’t seem to be able to teach and hear bells at the same time J

    Interesting post Deborah, and one I can relate to – thanks.

  6. sarah says:

    Actually, the Sarah in the post IS your sister. You just may not know that I was diagnosed with those disorders last year :).

    Read the book — the title AND the text are fabulous!

  7. John says:

    Deborah, I’m with you–I have the hardest time sitting still, even for things I enjoy. As much as I want to sit and meditate, I struggle.

    My favorite meditations involve some movement: repeating a mantra with beads in hand, stream of consciousness writing, and walking meditations. I’m a big fan of pilgrimages and just plain going for walks.

  8. Mike Kessler says:

    Deborah, FYI — most Jewish Sabbath morning services last between three and four hours!

    As for playing the piano instead of attending a 45 minute Sunday school session, I think it serves just as high a purpose. It calms and distracts you and makes your mind open to prayer.

    In Judaism, prayer, in order to be acceptable to the Almighty, must be accompanied by kavanah, or intent. I know intent is also mentioned often in the New Testament and the Book of Mormon. I cribbed this definition of kavanah from another site, but I don’t remember which:

    “Prayer requires the sense of standing in the presence of G-d and the intent to fulfill at least one of G-d’s commandments. This intent is called kavanah.

    “Talmud teaches that the minimal level of kavanah required is that ‘one who prays must direct one’s heart towards heaven’. The next higher level of kavanah is to know and understand fully the meanings of the prayers. The level following that is to free one’s mind of all extraneous and interfering thoughts. At the highest level, kavanah means to think about the deeper meaning of what one is saying and praying with extraordinary devotion. Should circumstances make it necessary for a person to choose between saying more prayers without kavanah or saying fewer prayers with kavanah, the fewer are preferred.”

  9. Deborah says:

    Sarah: One of the two is a surprise — sounds like we need to talk by phone sometime this week! 🙂

    Jana: I have to say that your descriptions of meditation on your blog have helped push me closer to actually *acting* upon these nagging feelings! However, I imagine I’ll need something to help focus my mind (ala John’s comment). As a teenager, I took hour long, solo walks almost every day (without a walkman). Looking back, I believe this was my most “productive” prayer time. But finding the *time* . . . .

    Tam: Thanks. I’m lucky that I have a RS president who gives me gratitude instead of grief for my musical meditations. Funny thing is, I really look forward to church more when I know that this will be a part of my worship. It’s the most calming hour of the block for me, a chance to lose myself in motion rather than thought.

    Mike: I *love* the quote you provided — especially the notion that prayer should include an intent to keep at least *one* commandment — and with so many to choose from . . .

    Anonymous: Sounds like you are a dedicated teacher. My post was less about SS (toward which I bear no animosity) and more about “stillness” in body and/or mind, and what it means for worship. Don’t fear for me: I taught evening institute for a number of the intervenening years — and at 90 minutes a session, a few wonderful scarves were born.

  10. AmyB says:

    Reading the post and comments brought up something a little different for me. I value stillness at times, and the times when I’m meditating I often feel more level headed and peaceful during the day.

    That said, sitting still and silent while meditating has developed over the years through predominantly male practices. A lot of the reading on spirituality and worship that I have done notes that masculine tendencies are to be more still and observant, while feminine tendencies are to move, to flow. Dancing or singing or moving in some way might be a more feminine mode of worship.

    I’m not trying to put men or women in a box, especially since any given person may have a different balance of masculine and feminine characteristics within themselves. Sometimes I find myself wanting to find a place to engage in ecstatic dance or some other way to “flow” in my worship rather than be physically still. I think playing the piano probably fits more into that flowing worship, that creates inner stillness in a different, possibly more feminine way. I like the idea of promoting many ways of exploring spirituality, which may or may not include sitting through every meeting.

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