The double stroller’s wheels bumped over cobblestone, my daughters, jostled in the side-by-side seats, protesting. I walked for a moment looking at my own feet, feeling the uneven impressions of hewn rock against the soles of my shoes. We were in Bath, visiting my wife’s family in England, and the summer crowds were there, squeezing us at every turn through the city. I looked up in time to see a group forming ahead, people with their smartphones raised, cameras shuttering.
There in the pedestrian zone, poised on a motionless bicycle, was a man who had painted himself from foot to head in black and white, as if a charcoal drawing brought to life and then frozen in three-dimensionality. Only his eyes were recognizably human, warm and piercing from the center of his gray-scale head, bright like two holes in the cloud cover. He was a statue with a beating heart, blood repeating its circuit through his limbs, even as he remained stationary—the rigid tails of his costume coat perpetually blown back by an unfelt wind.
I had seen street performers of his kind before, usually draped in marbly white like a Grecian sculpture, or swathed in green as the Statue of Liberty—the art of stillness itself, in a world of endless commotion, the performance.
The children talked among themselves, trying to determine if he were really a statue, and the adults stood back, impressed by his resolve to resist the crowd’s overtures—among them, two high-school-age boys circling, leaning in close; an elderly woman’s dog sniffing at his legs; British coins hammering his tin bucket. He remained, as if ready to break free of his moorings—to take off into traffic and disappear down the Romanesque streets. Yet there he stayed.
I saw the living move and have his being, and it was good, and then just as suddenly he froze again.
The last time I remembered seeing a person so still was in very different circumstances. Inside the church, with its wood paneling and maroon carpet, were men and women wearing black. Flowers lay across the tables, others upright in pots and vases. Candle flames licked the smoke of melting wax. And the choir stood back, a hopeful melancholy coming from their mouths.
A woman in our congregation had died. Cancer had pulled her from the darkening room of this life into the next. As a community, we stood around her casket while hymns were sung and psalms read. I watched each person come close to touch her hand or kiss her forehead, as is the custom in our church, until finally only her daughter was left, bending down to press her lips against her mother’s cheek one final time. The two men from the funeral home stepped forward to close the coffin doors. She was no longer with us, though would always be with us. Still. Her body resting in the earth. Awaiting the upward movement of resurrection.
My daughters and I stood on the street for some time staring at the monochrome man, waiting to perceive even the slightest movement. We watched as a woman came close. She reached up and touched his hand, and then touched it again, looking back at us who were watching, as if seeking encouragement, or permission. She held his fingers, set her eyes on his eyes, looked at us again. And he didn’t move, not a twitch. She stayed long enough for a friend to take her picture, a puzzled expression on her face, and then walked away, turning back to look as she went, until finally she was out of sight.
We were about to leave ourselves, when the man suddenly lowered his fingers to the handlebars, his torso following, and then bent his legs to sit. For just a few seconds, his face relaxed, he blinked his eyes, looked around the crowd, and his mouth eased into a smile. The half-moon of us standing there smiled back, and I felt in myself a surprising relief. I saw the living move and have his being, and it was good, and then just as suddenly he froze again.
Purposeful stillness provides a necessary counterpoint to the frenzy of our days—it’s a corrective, a reminder.
The stroller rattled over stones until finally it wheeled onto the smooth asphalt, quieting to a hum. I thought about the man in black and white, and couldn’t help but wonder: When was the last time I had been truly still? In body or mind?
Human beings are made for motion, to be animated, alive. Even in our sleep we move, and we do this without thinking. We hear music, a call to the soul, and it’s the body that responds with dancing, toe-tapping, drumming on a steering wheel. So programmed is the expectation of motion into our psyches that we either marvel at stillness or mourn its presence: We look at our dead and wish to see them up again and laughing, walking through the park, yawning at the table in early morning. And the living, we expect to keep going, growing. We may talk about the need to slow down, to stop and change direction, but never to cease completely.
And yet, if we’re not careful, the motion of our lives ceases to be a gift and instead becomes a prison we carry through the world, where in our own hearts and minds we are both the guard and the inmate. And wouldn’t you know, the body itself ends up worse for the wear.
Purposeful stillness provides a necessary counterpoint to the frenzy of our days—it’s a corrective, a reminder. It helps us to look back through the weeks, months, and years to evaluate, and what comes into focus is rarely the moments we have been too slow to act, but rather those when we have busied and hurried ourselves to excess. And for what? We act as if time were running out. As if what was left of tomorrow depended on us.
We each have been called to lead a life made beautiful with meaning.
Time is running out, as it happens. And to some extent, the future does depend on us. We each have been called to lead a life made beautiful with meaning, every task and achievement ultimately judged by the love it produced in us for God and neighbor alike. That love takes many forms, some of which will carry on in the world long after our last words fly from our lips on a whiff of breath.
What we do here and now matters. Stillness, whether on retreat, or in the dark silences of the night, or standing over a baby crib touched by the day’s first golden hues—perhaps even in the spectacle of a street performance—can be a reminder to remain purposeful with the life we’ve been given. Never an end in itself, it helps move through the world in a manner worthy of our calling, with intention, humility, and grace.
Soon enough, we too will be lying in the grave, our bodies waiting. Purposeful stillness is a reminder of that, too. We need to remember our deaths, and to keep moving while the light remains with us. We need to love now, and trust now—to dwell in gratitude for our brief days of walking in the land of the living.